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Life after pomp and circumstance: advice for parents

THE pageantry is splendid, and the anthems stir the heart, but many parents may begin feeling a bit anxious as they watch their son or daughter graduate from high school. What new challenges will college bring to family relationships?

College life isn't as easy on young people as it used to be, and it's important for parents to be aware of the challenges and changes their children are going through, says Karen Coburn.

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Ms. Coburn is associate dean of student development at Washington University in St. Louis, and co-author of an insightful new book titled ``Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Today's College Experience'' (Adler & Adler, Bethesda, Md., 256 pp., $17.95, hard cover; $7.95, paperback).

Parental care remains an important anchor in their child's life, even when the child is ``grown up'' and away at college, Coburn comments.

``Colleges today offer new choices and opportunities, but these may feel overwhelming to students,'' she continues. ``Twenty-five years ago colleges took an in loco parentis view.

``Students weren't treated as adults. And campus life wasn't as diverse. There were few blacks in most colleges, quotas on Jews - and many single-sex colleges and fewer foreign students.''

There are also new strains on sexual relationships. One out of 8 college women today are victims of date rape, according to a recent survey that Coburn cites.

And then there's anxiety about money. Half of today's graduates leave college in debt.

In the midst of these pressures, young people are struggling to define their own identity. Coburn says parents should support this process rather than intervene in it.

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``We wrote the book to help parents step back and see that what their children are going through is normal and healthy. Changes show that a student is thinking, `What do I want to be like?'

``If your child comes home with a punk haircut, sit back, relax, and have a sense of humor.''

Parent-child relations can get tricky, since college students are trying to establish independence from their parents but often need the stability and caring that home offers.

Regular mail helps students feel in touch with their families, while phone calls from home may seem intrusive, the book points out.

``Most students care a lot more about what parents think of them than parents realize,'' says Coburn. ``Sometimes when students ask me for advice, I think to myself that if their parents said what I'm saying, it would feel like a demand.''

While emphasizing the ``letting go'' theme, Coburn sees four areas where parental initiative is crucial: communication, finances, academics, and values.

Before their child leaves for college, Coburn says, parents should open up lines of communication. This might be formal or informal, ``whatever has evolved through your family.''

Parents could set a time to talk on the phone every week, or simply say, ``You may reach some hard times. When you do, I want you to know you can talk to me. I'm not going to be shocked.''

Parents should also make the financial situation clear. ``Many students arrange to pay their own expenses. But it should be clear what this means,'' Coburn advises. ``For example, does this include airplane tickets?''

``In a lot of families, talking about money is more of a taboo than talking about sex,'' she continues.

If financial expectations are clear, it is less likely that students will later feel angry or guilty about how the financial burden is being shared.

Academic expectations shouldn't be ignored, either.

With the high cost of college, many parents look at their child's grades as a ``return on the investment.'' And students often have to justify their choice of major to their parents. Coburn tells of students she's talked with who are pressured by their parents to go into premed programs or business.

``When I was working the career development office, it was hard to convince students that art history is not a dead-end major,'' she says.

In her book she asks parents to be aware not just of what grades their children are getting, but also of whether they are enthusiastic about what they're studying.

When it comes to the subject of values, Coburn has no easy formula. ``The last thing an 18-year-old wants is a lecture from Mom and Dad,'' she comments.

Her main point is for parents to communicate their concerns - in a way that feels comfortable for both child and parents.

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