When kids are old enough to understand, parents have The Talk, about birds and bees and how — poof — babies are born when two people love each other.
When it's time for kids to head off to college or university, The Talk II may go something like this: DON'T HAVE UNPROTECTED SEX!
Untethering your teens for college often includes rapid-fire declarations on birth control, drug use, date rape and binge drinking. Squeezed out of the conversation may be equally important topics that don't bubble to the surface until after the start of freshman year.
That could mean, for kids who have turned 18, an explanation of waivers they must sign ahead of time if they want to grant parents a say in their health care or allow them to see their grades.
It could mean advice on dealing with roommates after a lifetime of space to themselves, or even making sure they know how to set an alarm so they can get themselves up.
"It's a tough time to have these conversations when the wheels are falling off," said Houston Dougharty, vice-president of student affairs at Grinnell College in Iowa. "We want families to have these conversations before they come to school."
Glossing over issues won't be enough in some cases, he warns. For example, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, prohibits schools from releasing grades and other educational records without a student's written permission.
"Talking about the expected level of disclosure before the semester starts helps to avoid unwelcome surprises later," Dougharty said. "Things like, 'If you expect to see my grades, at what point do you expect to see them? Are you going to trust me to show you at winter break or summer break?'"
Parents used to texting high schoolers half a dozen times a day or more may be alarmed when their kids stop responding once they land at college, so the pre-college talk can cover: Will it be text, email or phone calls? Will it be once a day, twice a week or every first Sunday of the month?
Dougharty also suggests going over a school's student code of conduct in detail, including what types of situations will result in a call home. Federal law allows each college to set those boundaries, covering such things as alcohol infractions when no legal or medical issue is involved.
Don't bombard your freshman-to-be with too much information at the last minute. "The important thing is to start a healthy discussion early," Dougharty said.
Long Island mom Eileen Masciale, whose 18-year-old daughter attends a state university in the mid-Atlantic region, said she wished she had gone over how to cope with social issues beforehand rather than concentrate as she did on academics and mundane logistics like laundry, especially in light of the suicide of a local teenager last year whom her daughter knew.
"My daughter has friends in her dorm, but it's been a challenge finding her 'core group,' as she calls it," Masciale said. "I didn't know how she was handling things, but she reached out to all her other friends at different colleges and got a lot of support. Things are falling into place now."
In Florida, Tina Koenig wound up driving one of her son's roommates to the ER when he broke his foot on a Sunday last year and the campus health clinic was closed. She happened to be there helping her son move and had no idea where to go for medical help, until she stumbled on a list of local hospitals and clinics that his housing complex had handed out. It was thrown into a mass of his belongings unread.
"I was there to help and drive him since the injured foot was the right foot, but if I wasn't ...," she said. "It would be helpful for the student to know local hospitals or urgent care facilities that accept his insurance."
Koenig's son faced a more serious health issue and sought treatment on his own at the school clinic without getting his parents involved, but the condition worsened and he wound up needing surgery and missing a semester of school.
"Kids want to be treated like adults and are led to believe they can manage medical treatment on their own, but I don't think it's the case when they're that young," she said.
With another son college bound this year, Koenig's not sure how she'll benefit from hindsight. "Engaging my high school senior in a conversation about anything that doesn't involve the Miami Heat and the NBA playoffs is impossible."
Dougharty said it's often surprising how little new students can do for themselves.
"Every year I know of first-year students who wake up in the morning at college when their mom calls," he said. "They've never set an alarm, prepared their own meal and because they're bright kids they've, in essence, gotten through high school on their wits without having to be that organized," he said.
"They haven't had to use the tools that they then need to be fully independent."