Thu, Nov 06, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The shift from child to adult can come as a shock to US parents

The implications of the changes in a teenager’s legal status when they turn 18 is not something many parents think about — perhaps until an emergency arises

By Alina Tugend  /  NY Times News Service

A college freshman walked to a hospital emergency room at midnight and said she feared that she was going to harm herself.

Twelve hours later, after it was determined that she was no longer in danger, she decided to call her parents — but only after a long conversation with a nurse at the hospital about whether she wanted to talk with family members about her experience.

“It was initially a shock to realize that if this had happened the day before, we would have been called immediately,” said her mother, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, Jo, to protect her daughter’s privacy.

Why the difference? The daughter turned 18 at midnight that night and according to US law had the right to keep the episode private — even from her own parents and even though they would ultimately pick up the bill.

Most parents know — in theory, at least — that their children are no longer children when they turn 18, but the full significance may not be apparent until something happens that drives that reality home.

“It’s an abrupt transfer of power,” said Bonnie Snyder, author of The Unemployed College Graduate’s Survival Guide and The New College Reality.

The change in legal status may be especially surprising nowadays for parents who try to control so many aspects of their children’s lives. So when their offspring turn 18 and gain the ability to vote, serve on a jury, sign a contract and marry without parental consent, it may be the first time they have ever had any real autonomy.

“Gone is the homework hotline and every other check and balance,” said Nancy Berk, author of College Bound and Gagged. “It’s time to separate, but not every kid hits the ground running.”

Having a conversation about their rights and responsibilities when they turn 18 is a good first step, Snyder said.

The “enormous gaps in the knowledge” of her two daughters — one now a college graduate and one a college freshman — surprised her, she said, on things like understanding health insurance and balancing checkbooks.

Many boys in the US do not realize, for example, that when they turn 18 they must register for the military draft or are in violation of the law.

All newly minted adults should know that they have responsibility for their health and education records — including grades, schedules and financial accounts — and that their parents cannot get access to them without the student’s permission. That means even tuition bills go directly to the student, not the parent, no matter who is paying.

That is because of a 1974 US federal law, known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), that all institutions of higher education receiving federal money must follow.

Colleges tell parents this at orientations and have the information about the law on their Web sites, but it can easily get lost in the masses of information.

All students have the right to sign a waiver — and in most colleges it is as easy as clicking on a page on the school Web site — permitting parents access to their school records.

“I see nothing wrong with saying, ‘If I’m writing the check, your part of the contract is that you share your grades with us,’” Berk said. “It’s just like a boss would want to see what is produced before you get the paycheck.”

Mark Snyder, Bonnie Snyder’s husband and an academic adviser at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, says he gets calls about once a week from parents asking for — or more typically, hinting that they want to know more about — their child’s schedule or grades.

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