How to be a devoted college parent even while social distancing

In these unprecedented times, we’ve got to be prepared to parent from afar


One of the most quaint features of Cambridge college life is the college family. I, for one, was really looking forward to meeting my college children, accompanied by my ever-supportive college wife in October and welcoming them into the wonderful but dysfunctional family that awaits them. However, COVID-19 had other plans, so this face-to-face meeting might be put on hold until Lent. In the meantime, I wanted to give you all, myself included, some suggestions on how to lovingly parent from afar and prepare your children for the chaotic but brilliant 3-7 years ahead of them.

Family day zoom call – Can’t punt with prosecco in hand? Try the next best thing; zoom, prosecco and some great chat.

I’ll admit, Zoom supos are awkward, Zoom quizzes are a bit dead, but your options are few and if you have buckets of enthusiasm, as any good parent should, you can make this work. This will admittedly be a lot easier if you had a great Freshers Rep who matched you with children doing yours or your spouse’s subject, because if all fails you can impart wisdom on how to survive the aCaDemiC rIgoUr of the course. Suitable topics include which lectures to make a big effort to go to (Historians I’m looking at you), which supervisors are not to be messed with and the URL for the Google Drive with the last six years of student notes. If you’re a Natsci lumped with an ASNAC child, tough luck you still have to make an effort, your child needs you. Talk to them about where they are from, their hobbies, what societies they want to join and what they want to do after their degree.

Teach them how to do a formal – Which bread roll is mine? Do I have to get there 15 minutes early?!

Every college formal is different, and for many incoming freshers, it will be unlike any kind of formal dining they have done before. Critical things of note here: bread roll to the left, drink to the right and use the cutlery on the outside first working your way in. Let them know what your college catering company’s policy on arrival time is, as turning up last and having everyone stare at you as you walk around the tables trying to find a seat is ‘ground swallow me up’ worthy levels of embarrassing. More importantly, though clue them in on the wine situation; corkage with BYO or included in the price? You could always do a family formal over Zoom too.

Me and my wife looking at our clueless children, fully aware of the term of stress and misadventure that awaits them.

Save them from making the mistakes you made – Silly silly fresher.

This one isn’t major, but it is a valid point. Some first years will be so eager and keen and might overlook obvious warning signs, be that on phishing emails or sharking behaviour (see what I did there?) Let your kids form their own opinions on people and issues within the college and university. Still, if you have had a bad experience with an organisation or individual personally, I think it’s reasonable to share that information if you want to and let them come to their own conclusions. Also, explain why it is essential to college marry someone with whom you have strictly platonic feelings for because you do not want your grandchildren to be in an awkward position when their parents’ divorce.

Check-in on them – They’ve never written a Cambridge essay before, they might be flailing wildly in front of their laptop looking up synonyms for significant.

Whenever I bumped into my college parents, they made an effort to ask me how I was doing, and I appreciated this so much. The first term of university is overwhelming, corona or not. Your social circumstances are completely different, your workload is enormous, and no one is helping you make sense of it. Even if come Michaelmas your college child is living with family or guardians and doesn’t have to learn to use a washing machine or cook chicken, they still have to learn how to survive a supervision, and they still have to navigate making friends in and out of college. Having someone a year ahead, who has done these things, checking in on them will bring them some comfort. I’m not saying Facetime them every day at 6 pm to discuss how their day went. That is quite intense. What I am saying is; when you have a spare moment, between emails and lecture notes, drop them a line on messenger and ask them how they are doing and if you can lend a hand.

Exhibit A: A weary fresher in need of some college parent TLC.

Get them involved in student life – It is always better to sign up for everything than nothing.

Having been at Cambridge a year now (well 2/3 of a year I guess), you should know some tips and tricks. Even if your child is stuck at home and not really at Cambridge in person, they are still part of a new community with lots of new expectations and opportunities. Make sure they sign up to some form of club or activity in order to find friends outside their college and their course. You spend the most time with people from those two groups, and so these relationships are likely to change a lot during the first year. An excellent way to guard against loneliness when times get tough with college or course friends is to have external friends to talk to and work on projects (drama, music, sport) with. Having a hobby, even if you’re doing it alone in isolation, is a great way to maintain a work-life balance in a climate of competitive hyper-productivity. Also, suggest to them that they get Facebook if they don’t have it. Arguably it is an awful social media platform in many respects, but it is such an integral part of the university experience; events get posted there, Camfess is there, Crushbridge and Queerbridge are there, your JCR posts are there.

Give them a virtual tour – Know your side streets to save time in your bed sheets. 

Your child may never need to go to West Cambridge or the college boathouse, but it can’t hurt to show them where it is. Fill them in on the good coffee shops, the best pubs and the location of Cindies, Life etc. Explain the importance of Mainsbury’s or if you’re at Downing, the importance of Slocals (especially the fact you cannot buy alcohol there after 8 pm). I’d also suggest you clue them in on how busy some parts of Cambridge get when the tourists are out in full force, and so which cycling and walking routes are good at avoiding a near-death collision. You could even encourage them to support local Cambridge businesses, for example, order some Hot Numbers coffee online so they can prepare for the real thing when they finally get to Cambridge.

Efficiency is key. Always know the fastest way from A to B.

Send them your notes – Even if you’re a tripos topping type, you can’t go back a year and do it again, so let them do it instead.

Many colleges now have google drives with previous students notes on them, so make sure if this is the case, they have access to it. However, if you are feeling genuinely charitable, how about you scan some of your own best stuff and send it to them. Ultimately they still have to do the learning, so it’s not like you’re saving them much work. Instead, you’re helping them understand what is relevant from the content lecturers put up, which is hard at times considering the, erm, structure, shall we say, of some lecturers handouts.

With that, I wish you the best of luck as you embark on this new chapter in your Cambridge career. And remember, a college child is for life, not just for Michaelmas.

Photo credits: Xanthe Robertson, Catherine Scott:Uploaded by Yjenith