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College Family Weekend: Decoded

It used to be that parents dropped their kids off at college and then hardly stepped foot on campus again. But today, many schools invite parents back for a fall family weekend jam-packed with campus tours, lectures, performances and sporting events. Here, should you decide to swing the cost and distance to attend, is the inside scoop on how to make the most of the experience:

Talk to your child in advance about how much time you will spend together during the visit. This way, you can go into the weekend with realistic expectations. While you may dream of spending every breakfast, lunch and dinner with your student, he’s probably too busy with schoolwork and social events to devote so many hours to you. “Be flexible if you find out that your child has a test on Monday he absolutely must study for,” says Marjorie Savage, director of the Parent Program at the University of Minnesota. “But it’s OK to insist he spend at least some time with you.”

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Expect a crowd. Even the sleepiest small town grows into a busy hub when thousands of parents arrive for a weekend. So if you’re coming by car, bring your walking shoes and be prepared to park far away from campus because every parking lot will be packed, says J.D. Rothman, author of The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions. Also book your hotel and restaurant reservations as far in advance as possible, because many college towns have limited accommodations and places to eat.

Offer to take your child’s friends out for a meal. “For many students, this is a time when they’re feeling out friendships, and there can be a fear that 'if I have to spend time with mom and dad, my friends will all be hanging out together and I’ll miss something,’” says Savage. Including the friends in your plans solves this problem, plus, “parents can learn a lot by meeting the student’s friends.”

Don’t feel you have to sign up for all the events, but attend at least a few. Colleges are doing their best to impress you, so they will put on a good show. “You will find out about subjects like consumer ecology that you didn’t even know existed,” says Rothman. “And any lecture you attend you can be sure is with the most stellar professor.” She also recommends attending the football game, if offered, because “it’s probably the most iconic event of the weekend” and gives you a great feel for the culture of the college.

Get a personalized tour. “Ask your student to take you on a tour of his typical day,” advises Savage. Most students “will enjoy pointing out landmarks and where their classes are. Even if you’ve toured the campus multiple times—or you went there yourself—it will be a whole new experience when interpreted by your student.”

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Try not to ask direct questions. This is the first time you’ve seen your student in weeks, and of course you want to know everything! “But asking direct questions can feel like prying to your student,” says Savage. She advises parents instead to ask general questions, such as “What do students do on the weekend here?” rather than “What do you do on weekends?” In describing the campus scene in general, your child will most likely also reveal how he spends his Fridays and Saturdays.

Give guidance if needed. “Parents weekends are within the first six to eight weeks of college starting for a reason,” says Savage. “Students tend to set their behaviors within this time period. This is a good time to see what direction your student is heading and talk to him about any areas of concerns. If it sounds like your student is partying too much or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, doing nothing but studying, have a discussion about balance and goals.”

Be prepared for some homesickness. Often, kids are struck by this about now, according to Matthew J. Patashnick, Director of Parent and Family Programs at Columbia University. The “honeymoon” phase is over and the academic intensity is heating up, so students may long for the comfort and security of home. Just know, says Patashnick, that a small dose of homesickness is “natural and normal” and that for most students, it quickly passes.

Stock up on anything your child needs. This is your last chance to make a final Bed Bath & Beyond run for your child or buy him computer gear at Office Depot, so take advantage of it, advises Rothman. It’s also a good idea to stock up on your student’s favorite foods at a local market, she recommends. Even if your child is on a full meal plan, you’ll feel better leaving him with a stocked mini fridge.

Make it a yearly event. Many parents only feel the need to visit freshman year, but you might get even more out of the Family Weekend in future years. As students settle in and find their place on campus, they worry less about fitting in and are “happier to spend family time during parent’s weekend than that first year,” says Savage. And for most parents, hanging out with your child—and knowing he wants to be with you, too—is the real secret to a great weekend!

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