Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money

Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money

McClure, Jane

Don’t Tell Me What to Do, just Send Money

by Helen R. Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller

Griffin Trade Paperback, 2000

$16.95, 384 pages, paperback

Don’t Tell Me What To Do, just Send Money has something in it for every family sending a child off to college. I found myself saying “Pest” aloud several times when the author modeled for parents how to communicate with students encountering typical problems during their first year of college.The authors, Helen Johnson, who founded Cornell University’s Parents’ Program, and Christine Schelhas-Miller, who teaches adolescent development in Cornell’s department of human development, have clearly had a great deal of experience in helping both students and their parents cope with the school to college transition and adjustment issues.

Their basic premise is that parents need to shift roles once the kids leave for college. They propose developing a mentoring style of parenting in which parents “can become a trusted advisor, assisting your child in making wise decisions and becoming fully independent.” The book is a teaching manual, in a sense, with a format that ensures that the reader understands how to communicate with a student and why it is important to do so.

The first chapter, “Letting Go, But Still Showing that You Care,” lays the groundwork for this new kind of relationship. Essential skills for mentoring (listening effectively, asking open questions, avoiding “why” questions, making “I” statements) are discussed and then modeled with scenarios. In some instances, the wrong way to handle a conversation or phone call is presented, followed by a better way, so that the difference is clearly discernable. Sidebars entitled “What’s on Your Mind?” and “What’s on Your Child’s Mind?” help to elucidate how different the perspectives can be. Each scenario is followed by boxes that give suggestions on “What to Do” and “What to Avoid.” The latter invariably includes what would be many parents’ natural instincts: Telling them what to do, judging their behavior, dismissing their fears, reminding them how much money it costs to send them to college, etc. To those of us who have worked with adolescents and their families for many years, there is the ring of truth in these scenarios.

After laying the groundwork for how to be a good mentor, the second chapter covers what needs to be discussed before the kids actually go to college. This chapter does an excellent job of setting forth the nitty-gritty issues for which there must be preparation: what to bring, how to handle money, how and how often to be in touch. This chapter will be particularly helpful to families in which this is the first child to go to college, especially if the parents did not go away to college themselves.

The remaining chapters cover the typical big and small adjustment tribulations that all students face during freshman year-roommate difficulties, fraternity parties, all-nighters, changing majors and time management. Thoughtful and very serious attention is also given to what the authors call “The Big Three”: drinking, drugs and sexuality. Under each topic there is a section called

“What You Need To Know,” which provides parents with valuable information about campus services, adolescent development, descriptions of campus culture, and even basic definitions of, for example, different kinds of parenting styles.

Particularly impressive is the chapter on “When to Worry, When to Act,” which provides a framework for evaluating and coping with problems and crises, and “knowing the difference” between the two. For example, the warning signs of depression, attributed to Grayson and Meilman, are listed with the suggestion that if one or two are observed, parents should keep an eye on the situation; but if several of these indicators are present for more than a couple of weeks, the child needs help and parental action is appropriate. Drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out and eating disorders are covered as well, sensitively and pragmatically, and the authors’ advice for how to cope with these issues is bolstered by statistical and theoretical information.

Overall, I found the language to be easy to understand for a lay person (meaning parent) without being in any way patronizing. The thoughts and feelings of parents are identified and validated at the same time that solid advice on how to cope with difficult situations is given. I have already recommended this book to a few of my previous clients who have called me about some of the adjustment problems their freshman sons or daughters are having. I would also recommend the book to those of you who are college counselors but may not ever have had specific training in counseling. The style of communication recommended by Johnson and Schelhas-Miller will be just as effective for counselors working with juniors and seniors as it is for parents.

Some multicultural issues are addressed, but I frankly wish there were more. The difficulties likely to be encountered by first-generation college students are covered and campus services and programs available to them are described. Interracial dating is one of the aspects of social adjustment that is included. The book, however, is primarily targeted for middle to upper-middle class families where going to college is the norm.

As the title would indicate, there is no absence of humor in this book. Many of the case examples are just plain funny. albeit surprisingly realistic. If you have sent your own children off to college, you are bound to enjoy some deja vu moments. Most importantly, this is a book you can recommend with confidence to your senior parents, and be sure to purchase a copy for yourself.

Reviewed by Jane McClure, Ph.D, educational psychologist in San Francisco, CA.

Copyright National Association of College Admissions Counselors Fall 2001

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