But resist the urge to sharpen a pencil. That's not to say parents should be entirely hands-off when it comes to performance. If Junior comes home with a D on an assignment, they can suggest he ask the teacher for one-on-one help or seek out other support, well before one D becomes an unacceptable grade on a final transcript.
"There is so much a parent can do to empower children to help themselves," says Cohen, who stresses that parents must keep their distance during the college admissions months. "I get parents saying, 'We're applying to Michigan' or 'We got a 2100 on the SAT.' I know you want to be proud, but you can be proud without taking ownership."
Another skill that kids need to stand on their own two feet is the ability to handle disputes, which they won't master if mom and dad are always running interference. Psychologists say the best approach parents can take when a child has a conflict is to brainstorm with the child about ways to start a dialogue, not call up the other party themselves. Otherwise, the child's confidence and effectiveness are apt to suffer.
Self-confidence is nurtured, too, by bonding with other adults while in high school and college. "Parents need to encourage their children to find a trusted adult with whom they can have a consultative relationship," advises Ian Birky, director of the counseling center at Lehigh University. "By the time they leave the university, they need to have other adults—faculty, coaches, administrators—helping them make the transition to careers."
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Robert Epstein, founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, has conducted research showing that one of the top predictors of a good parent-child relationship is the parent's ability to foster independence and autonomy. "When you hover, the message you give your children is 'I know what's best for you—you cannot do it on your own,'" says Epstein. "Once your child is no longer a child, if you are still hovering—and we know millions are—you have a real problem."
As for Peter, a University of Evansville grad who was able to reach his early 30s with a steady job and his own home, the road to independence was a painful one, an experience that left him with a few words of wisdom for parents: "Allow your children to explore the world and find out who they are. Allow them to make mistakes. It's a good lesson." And one best learned before the stakes grow high.
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