In the months leading up to my first child going off to college, he really tested my patience. I found myself envying those animals that ate their young. I mentioned it to my mom in one of our many conversations and she imparted her wisdom: “God has a way of letting you know when it’s time to cut the apron strings.” Amen, sister. Amen.
On the day we took him to school, I didn’t sense any emotion from him. I figured he was glad to get away from home and the “stupid” rules we had about behavior and curfews. But as we pulled out of the driveway, I noticed that he couldn’t look back at the house. Our/his beloved pup Kody was watching him from the front window, and I knew that he really was emotional about leaving home. The tough guy routine was just a façade that masked how he was really feeling.
Once at the college, I did all the typical “mom” things: I made his bed, put things away in orderly fashion, double-checked his supplies, and tried to be upbeat. The time came for us to leave, and the tears came as I walked to the car. As my husband and I got into our respective vehicles, we both looked back at my son’s dorm. There he was, standing in the porch area chatting up a couple of girls. My husband and I looked at each other. My son was going to be fine.
Over the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder how he was doing. When he didn’t call the first night, I was relieved; he must be doing ok. When he didn’t call the next day, I was happy; he made it one full day…that was good. When he didn’t call the second day, I was satisfied; he must be busy getting ready for the first day of classes. When he didn’t call the third day, I kept telling myself that it was good; he must be having a good time. When the fourth day rolled around with no call, I told my husband that it was clear my son was having WAY too much fun and I was going to call him. My husband stopped me. I finally received a call on day 5. He was happy, seemed well adjusted, had made friends, and was ready for classes. I never told him I had been on the verge of driving up there and chewing him out.
Letting go of our children is a tough thing to do. But it’s a necessary step that every parent must take. For us, it’s a leap of faith that all the lessons we’ve taught them will help them make good decisions, problem-solve well, and develop responsible independence. If we hover, and continue to make decisions for them, and intervene every time there’s a problem, we’re admitting that we did a lousy job of parenting AND we’re telling our kids that we don’t believe in them enough to be able to handle themselves and their newfound independence. As one parent to another, here’s how I made it through. Maybe it will help you too.
Do NOT Solve Their Problems
My first piece of advice for parents is: when they call (and they will) and tell you that they have a problem, ask the following: “What are you going to do about it?” That simple question sends the message that you believe in your child’s ability to be mature enough to find a good solution to the dilemma at hand. And let’s face it, if they aren’t mature enough to do that, they shouldn’t be away at school. As they consider their options for solving the dilemma, you can listen and ask guiding questions: “If you do that, do you see any negative consequences of that solution? What are the pros/cons of that solution? Which solution do you think will have the best outcome for you?” The main idea here is this: do NOT solve the problem for them. They need to believe (and so do you) that they have the ability to fix things themselves.
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Do Not Call The School
Second piece of advice: unless you are calling about the tuition bill, do NOT call the college or any professors. Again, if there are issues with a class or with a dorm or with a roommate, those are for your child to solve. How is it going to look if mommy and daddy swoop in? It’s not only humiliating, but it also reduces your college freshman to baby level. Plus, according to FERPA, the college can’t talk to you because your child is of age and is now legally responsible for his/her educational records and business. And that also means you won’t get a copy of grades unless your child specifies that you should receive them. I’m not sure that it’s quite fair that the college contacted me about the tuition bill but I couldn’t get a copy of my child’s grades…somehow that didn’t seem quite right. But that’s the way it is. To this day, I have no idea what my son’s grades or grade point average was. But he ended up ok…he’s employed and he doesn’t ask me for money….or to come back home.
Give Them Their Space
Third piece of advice: don’t be a frequent visitor or insist that your child come home often. It’s critical that kids find their place on their college campus. They need to create a life there…a life that doesn’t include mom and dad. I’ll never forget the day that my son told me that he didn’t want my husband and me just stopping in without calling. I wanted to burst out laughing. This kid must have thought I had no life. I assured him (very seriously) that I wouldn’t ever do that. And I didn’t. Guess what happened? He called ME and asked if we could come up to visit. I soon learned that meant he was out of food or needed something; it all made me chuckle. Honestly, I loved going to visit when he asked, and my intent was to leave him with full cupboards and having a few extra things. I remember what that meant to me as a college freshman, and it still holds true. He appreciated me more for not showing up continually, and he was very grateful for anything that I gave him. It was good for both of us.
Let Them Find Their Place
Fourth piece of advice: allow your kids to find their own place within the social structure of college. Some parents live vicariously through their children and their experiences. They pressure them with expectations of getting into a specific sorority/fraternity, of making a certain team, of going on a semester abroad, of being in the “right” dorm and making the “right” friends, etc. I’ve seen too many parents agonize over getting letters of recommendation for a sorority or fraternity; some are more concerned about those letters than letters of recommendation that go along with a college application! Kids need to be able to be their own person, to make their own choices about activities, and know that whatever they choose they will still have their parents’ support. Please don’t put that kind of pressure on your kids.
Enforce Your Rules At Home
Fifth piece of advice: when they come home, get ready for extreme schedule disruption. The daily schedule of college kids is crazy. They sleep till noon, make plans to go out when most parents are going to bed, come in during the wee hours of the morning, and continue the cycle. But remember, this is your home. They don’t get to come back and behave like someone holding all of you captive. You can still (and should) enforce your family rules and expectations. Coming home doesn’t mean that mom and dad will become doormats and the house will be a motel, laundry and diner. Make your expectations clear and stick to them. If they don’t like them, too bad. Maybe they’ll stay at school over the summer. Maybe they won’t end up living on your couch after graduation.
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Sixth piece of advice: don’t change who you are and what you value to suit them. Going to college doesn’t mean that they become kings and queens when they return home. You do not become their “beck and call” parents when they want/need something. Many parents are helping their children financially during their years in college. That’s quite a sacrifice. There’s no way you should accept anything but respect and appreciation from them. Demanding or expecting that doesn’t mean you are miserable or pathetic. Would they treat an employer that way??
Do Not Cave
Here’s a true story: when the time came for my son’s graduation, I began talking with him about having a graduation party. Not only is this party a time for family and friends to get together to celebrate, but it’s also a time when the person of honor receives gifts that can help launch him or her. It’s like a rite of passage. My son told me that he wanted a keg party. I told him what my husband and I were prepared to buy with respect to alcohol, and that didn’t suit him. His response: “No keg, no party.” So I took him at his word. And I stuck to my guns and my values. I went all over town and cancelled every party platter, returned decorations, and told relatives there would be no party. As graduation day approached, my son asked me about the party. I gave him a surprised look and said, “I cancelled the party. You said no keg, no party, and I wasn’t going to get a keg, so I took you at your word and cancelled everything.” The look on his face was priceless. He was caught. He laid down that demand, I countered with my value, and I stuck to my guns. And all the while, my daughter was watching and learning. We had no graduation party for my son. When my daughter was graduating from college, I asked her what she wanted for her party, and she said, “Whatever you want, mom.” She had a lovely family dinner at a favorite restaurant, was thrilled to be honored and, I suspect, felt very smug looking at her brother that evening as she opened her many gifts.
I’ve told that story to my private practice clients, and they are typically incredulous. They can’t believe that I didn’t cave. But think about it…we spend our parenting lives preparing to launch our kids. We want them to have the skills to be successful when they go out into the world on their own. What would an employer say to an employee who counters an offer with a ridiculous demand? How do we want them treating their spouse and their children? We set the example, folks. The last time I looked, the books on parenting did not say we were expected to wear “Welcome” mats on our backs.
Launching your children into college is a remarkable achievement for both kids and parents. There will always be a role for you in your child’s life. You will be his/her biggest cheerleader and wisest sounding board. It’s time to let them go and explore all that life has to offer. And when they come home and tell you about all the crazy, wonderful things that they have experienced, you can take pride in a job well done.