College-Bound Kids? Check Your Parenting Boundaries!

Posted on July 2, 2018

After all the excitement of high school graduation, summer’s next task is preparing our kids for college. High school gave us a taste of what it’s like to be a hands-off parent, with kids learning to advocate for themselves, speaking to their teachers and administrative staff on their own, scheduling homework and study sessions, and navigating clubs and sports. Undoubtedly, though, we still had our hands in the mix. We could give our opinion on their classes, suggest how to approach a teacher, and wake them up when their alarm didn’t go off, fully aware that in just a few short months, the kids would be taking care of everything on their own. Or would they?

Online parenting forums are filled with folks looking for ways they can make life easier for their college-age kids. They want to know who to contact to change a class, how their child will get from one end of the campus to the other, and what to do if their son or daughter doesn’t like their roommate? As we check off the list of things to bring to school and push our child to email the future roommate to find out which one is bringing the microwave, we are missing the point of college: to let our children explore adulthood and start figuring life out for themselves.

Just a few weeks before my 18-year-old son went off to university, I had a big argument with him over laundry. I had told him that he needed to start doing his wash himself to get into the habit. Then I happened to walk into his room at a time when there were clothes everywhere. Naturally, I exploded.

“I know you’re not going to be able to manage on your own,” I shouted. “You can’t even get into a routine of doing your laundry! You have no idea what independent adult life requires. You have to be committed to taking of yourself. You need to get to it now or you’re not going out with your friends!

There it was—all my worries about how he would survive packed in five angry sentences. My son shut me up quickly with his answer: “Mom, first, I’m 18½, and you can but you shouldn’t be telling me when I can and cannot go out with my friends. As you remind me often, I need to make my own decisions since I’ll be leaving in a few weeks. Second, you’ve invested a lot of time, money, and heart in supporting and funding my education. I’ve completed 5 AP classes and several rounds of SAT tests. Do you seriously think that I’m not capable of separating clothes by colors and pushing buttons on a machine? Last but not least, I take four showers a day and am an ultra-clean person who does not like wearing the same clothes more than once. Do you seriously think that will change?”

I started in on a rebuttal, but he stopped me with: “Can you just answer yes or no. I really need to know how much faith you have in me. You also seriously need to know how much faith you have in how you raised me!”’ He scrunched his forehead, crossed his arms, tapped his foot, and waited for me to answer. Of course, I burst out laughing! I knew he was capable. I was just anxious.

I smiled and said, “I have a feeling that you’ll wait until you have no more clothes to wear.”

“You’re right,” he responded. “I might do that once or twice. But I’ll live and learn. Isn’t that the point, Ma?”

We spend 18 years preparing our kids for being on their own, and that includes going to college. If we have done our jobs correctly, they should be able to find the phone number for their counselor, read a bus schedule, or set their alarm clock. If we have done our job right, the kids should know that pizza for dinner every night probably isn’t a great idea. They should also know how to find their way to the local market or department store. After four years of high school, they should know how to study and organize their notes. They should know that skipping class is a bad idea. And, as my son reminded me, they’ll even learn that eventually, they’ll have to do their laundry.

Still, it’s hard to stop ourselves from stepping in, just when we should be letting go. Here are some ways to ease the transition… for them and for us.

  1. Let the kids choose their own classes. Colleges today are pretty good about knowing what classes a student needs to take to complete a degree. That’s what college advisors are for. Let the staff members do their job. If your student has a question, he or she can call or email the advisor directly. If your child wants to run things by you, that’s great. But whatever you do, don’t call the school on your child’s behalf.
  2. Quit nagging. It’s the easiest way to shut down communication. Your idea of nagging might be different than mine, but there is no need to constantly ask about studying and homework and whether your kids are getting enough sleep or eating regular meals. This is the time for them to figure out what works best for themselves. Let them do it!
  3. Don’t obsess about grades. You won’t be getting a report card from your child’s school anymore. And if you constantly ask how they did on a test, it only puts added pressure on them. College is hard… and lots of kids struggle through their first semester. A bad grade doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be successful. There is a learning curve for everything. Let them ride that curve.
  4. They don’t need everything on the what-to-take list. It’s okay if you send them to school without a warm-enough coat or the right-size bed sheets. Dorm rooms are small, and there is no way you can know for sure what they will or won’t need. There is undoubtedly a store nearby… and there’s always Amazon. Seriously, they can buy what they don’t have.
  5. Stay out of roommate issues. Your son or daughter might call to complain about their roommate, but that doesn’t mean they need to get a new one. Part of living in a dorm is learning how to deal with people. Disagreements build communication and self-reliance. Encourage them to work things out. This is problem-solving at its finest.
  6. Do not expect to hear from your kids every day. More importantly, do not overstress “keeping in touch daily.” Please don’t hang it over their heads if they skip checking in for a day or two. You’re sending them off to start their independent lives. Growing into adulthood means not having to call mom or dad every single day. Be grateful to hear from them whenever they call, without guilt trips or shaming. Gentle, short text reminders like “I miss you” and “hope you’re doing well” are okay. But be sure to add, “I’m so excited for you.” And moms, cut down on the emojis!
  7. Feeling homesick doesn’t mean someone should come home. Most kids are going to get homesick at some point. College is a huge change for them. They are used to parents and siblings being around all the time. Now they are alone and have to make their own decisions. It’s not easy for sure, but don’t respond right away with, “It’s okay, why don’t you come home.” Chances are, after a bout of homesickness, the kids will perk up and be just fine. And a little homesickness will make those school breaks all the sweeter for both of you.

Yes, our babies are leaving home, and we can’t help being emotional about that. But this is exactly what we’ve prepared them to do. We’ve raised young adults who are capable of figuring out things for themselves. Now let’s take a step back and let them do just that.

As Julie Lythcott-Haims says in her groundbreaking book, How to Raise an Adult, “No one can give another person life skills. Each of us has to acquire them by doing the work of life on our own.” So guide and step aside. Make way for your children to forge their own path through their own experiences. It’s how life is learned best.