IOWA CITY, Iowa — The hour when Ariana Kramer will begin her college career is fast approaching — and her parents are in an office supply store, disagreeing about hanging files, of all things.
"She'll need them," her mother says.
"I don't think so," her dad counters.
Ariana, meanwhile, walks dreamily through the store, offering no opinion on this particular decision. She is, in fact, confident that she will have what she needs when she starts her freshman year at the University of Iowa.
She has mom, the family organizer, with her, and dad, the calm encourager. And they have "the list," which mom printed from one of those "what-you'll-need-at-college" websites.
New laptop. Check.
Comforter with matching sheets. Check.
Laundry detergent. Body wash. Antacid.
Check. Check. Check.
Mind you, Robin and Paul Kramer aren't those crazy college parents — not like the mother who, as relayed by one dean of students at one California college, stayed in her daughter's dorm room with her for four nights to help her adjust (until the daughter's roommate complained).
Nor have they ignored barricades intended to keep parents from trying to register for classes for their children, or crashed student-only orientation events, which officials at universities across the country say happens more and more.
Still, even for average parents, the letting go is difficult — more so, they and many others say, than it was for parents of college-bound freshmen in decades past.
Robin Kramer recalls how her own parents, who never attended college, dropped her off with a trunk full of belongings at Drake University, also in Iowa, in 1978. She set up her room and attended orientation without them there. "It's just what you did then," she says.
It was much the same for Paul, whose father took him to the University of Wisconsin in 1977 and then went fishing. "It was a culture shock," he says. "I wasn't sure I was going to survive."
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Perhaps that is part of what makes this "process of leaving," as Robin calls it, more difficult.
It is, all at once, overwhelming and exciting for everyone involved. But some say it's often hardest for parents, who remember the days of college when there were fewer support systems in place for students.
"I'm supposed to shed a few tears and then send her to the world, right?" the rational Robin tells her emotional self as she considers 18-year-old Ariana, the eldest of their two children.
That remains to be seen.
'Cut the cord!'
So how did we get here, anyway? It's not that saying goodbye was easy for parents of past generations.
But these days, moms and dads have gone from reading books that tell us how to raise "The Happiest Baby on the Block" to new handbooks such as "The Happiest Kid on Campus: A Parent's Guide to the Very Best College Experience (for You and Your Child)."
YOU and your child?
Linda Bips, a psychology professor who advises parents on letting go, used to carry scissors into workshops.
"Cut the cord!" she would tell them.
It evoked the chuckles she was looking for. "But I don't do that anymore, because no one would listen anyway," says Bips, a professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and author of "Parenting College Freshmen: Consulting For Adulthood."
The process, she has learned, has to be gradual.
Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, has been giving those kinds of talks for three decades and also has noted more parents struggling.
For one, they're more connected than ever, by Facebook and text messages and, increasingly, online video chat. They're also often paying huge sums of money on their children's education.
"So they think that gives them license to intervene as they would in other investments," says Duke, who also encourages parents to take a step back, even when it goes against the fiber of their very being.
He wants them, in effect, to let their children falter, to figure things out for themselves, to become adults.
For Ariana Kramer, it means giving up the comfort of what she freely calls the "bubble" she grew up in, the quiet home and highly ranked schools in suburban Chicago where her main task in life was to study hard and get herself where she is today.
In physical distance, it wasn't so far from the working-class neighborhoods where her parents grew up.
The Kramers both marvel at the freedom they had as kids, riding city buses as preteens and able to stay out with friends until the street lights came on. That was their signal that it was time to go home.
They went to neighborhood schools. Their friends lived across the street. They walked home for lunch.
"When we were growing up, there were no Amber Alerts," says Paul, who is 50.
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After they finished college and married, the Kramers eventually moved to their current home. Paul worked his way into medical sales and Robin, who is 49, created an at-home job for herself by managing businesses of lawyers and other self-employed professionals.
It became apparent how different their children's lives would be when they found themselves arranging "play dates" and driving them from activity to activity.
"You had to be so much more involved," Robin says — partly because, like a lot of people, they had fewer children to focus on than the average family of generations past.
Ariana worked in the summers, eventually becoming a counselor at a Wisconsin camp she attended for years. That helped her become more independent, she says.
But even she'll acknowledge that the thought of taking the train or bus into the city, as her parents did, is still daunting.
Over this past summer, she took on household duties — doing laundry, loading the dishwasher, learning how to write a check — to help prepare her for that real world she's anticipating.
In August, she moved in to her dorm at Iowa on the first day possible, so she had extra time to get her bearings. "I like simple," she says. "I need simple."
Push and pull
By many estimations, the Kramers are a low-drama family. But even they are having their prickly moments when they arrive in Iowa City, and that's to be expected in this time of heightened emotions, experts say.
Ariana rolls her eyes, for instance, when her mom suggests that she put her class assignments in her BlackBerry calendar.
"Mom, I'm not like you. You're way, too, uh ..." — Ariana pauses and chooses her words carefully when she remembers her words are being monitored by a reporter — "better organized than I am."
It's all part of the subtle push and pull that has been happening all summer, her mother says.
One minute it's "I can do it myself!" The next, Ariana is asking, "Mom, can you help me with this?"
Robin is having her own internal struggles, trying to step back but finding it a challenge.
"Let's be real. As a mom, sometimes it's just easier to do it yourself," she says, as she stands amid boxes and unpacked suitcases in the room Ariana will share with a roommate.
It's nothing fancy, your basic 1920s-era dorm room, upgraded with an air conditioner that is welcomed on a late summer day in muggy Iowa.
"Thank God I have you guys. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to do this," Ariana says, as her mother deals out tasks.
Per Robin's instructions, mother and daughter unpack her clothes first, as Paul sets up the clock radio, the portable telephone and the microwave.
For him, the dorm room and this whole visit make him a bit wistful: "I wish it were me," he says.
That, too, is a normal parental response to this transition, says Bips, the Muhlenberg College psychologist who's also a baby boomer and remembers "never trusting anyone over 30" back in her own college days.
"Life is more serious as you get older. There's more loss. There's more responsibility," she says
"So I would guess people in their 50s, who have to pay for college and worry about their jobs and the economy — yeah, wouldn't it be nice to go back?"
Some parents also feel nostalgic as the realization hits that their role — one of their main purposes in life — is changing, says Duke, the Emory psychologist: "If it's a first child — my gosh, that's a sobering signal about the progress of life."
Increasingly, colleges and universities have noted the support parents need in letting go, so much that they are starting to formalize the goodbye.
At St. Olaf College in Minnesota, incoming freshmen are shown a video with their smiling, crying parents waving goodbye as one big group. First-year students at the University of Chicago, meanwhile, walk their parents to the university gate as bagpipes play in what some university staff call the "parting of the seas."
At Drexel University's LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, a goodbye reception includes an unofficial "crying room," set up with tissues and a counselor. It's kind of a gentle joke, but one that's meant to send a message.
"The idea was that we understand this is a major change for everybody," says Ian Sladen, LeBow's assistant dean of undergraduate programs. "It's just as tough for parents — probably tougher, really."
But in the end, the message from universities and colleges is the same: Parents, please go home.
At the University of Iowa, there is no formal goodbye ceremony. The university does, however, have an orientation and newsletter for parents and an advisory board, where any concerns are addressed.
Meanwhile, Ariana also is taking a class called "The College Transition," a relatively new course that helps freshmen ease into college life. "I clearly need a course like that to survive," she says, her eyes widening for emphasis.
Courses like these, often referred to as "University 101," are becoming more common on college campuses. The aim is to turn out students who are independent and ready for the workplace — without their parents in tow.
"It was almost a badge of honor 30 years ago when students couldn't make it," says Sladen at Drexel. "No one would be proud of that today."
And that should help put parents at ease, he says.
'What do I do now?'
After nearly three days together in Iowa, the moment for Ariana to say goodbye to her parents and 16-year-old brother Chase finally arrives. Her parents get a little philosophical over sushi.
"If they ask you 'What's the best time of your life?' I think everybody will say college," her dad says. "So make the most of it."
"Have fun," her mom adds. "But don't forget about the academics."
As her parents say goodbye, Ariana takes on the role of comforter. "I'll call you," she says as she hugs her mom, who begins to tear up.
Ariana grabs dad and then her brother, who's also starting to cry. She teases him: "If you break anything in my room, you're in trouble." They laugh.
Chase, of anyone, has seemed the saddest about his sister leaving: "I think she'll be OK as long as she copes with everything," he had said the day before.
"Oh, she will," her mom assured him. "She's a coper."
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And it is true, Robin and Paul have faith in their daughter.
"Basically, I think she's very grounded and has a good head on her shoulders," Robin says.
She pauses. "But I'll still be thinking, 'Did she remember to do X, Y and Z?'"
Ariana's family departs, and the new freshman looks content, if not a little lost.
She leaves her door open (that's how you meet people, her resident adviser said). She looks around her room.
"It's weird," she says. "What do I do now?"
It won't be long before she phones home.
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