Off To College: The Serious Talk You Should Have With Your Child

by Lisa Heffernan
Originally Published: 
A picture of a busy park during autumn in front of a college with fallen leaves.

This is part of a three-part series, “Off to College,” on preparing your teens before they leave home. In July, we will probe dorm shopping: what to buy, where to buy it, and how not to waste your time or money. In August, we will touch upon some of the logistics of moving our kids to college with the collective wisdom of some “been there, done that” moms.

I had fantasies of what the summer between high school and college would be like with my son. In my dreams I recognize that, as a high school graduate, he has passed over the threshold of adulthood, and I treat him accordingly. Knowing that our family only has weeks left in its current configuration, we use this time to do things together that we all love. In this delusion, my son is liberated from the pressure of college admittance and the relentless grind of high school and is therefore thrilled to spend time with his family. He looks forward to dorm shopping with his mom and has long meaningful talks with his parents. He doesn’t even complain about the 2-ft. high stack of paperwork that accompanies his transition to adulthood.

I wish for you this idyllic summer, the one I didn’t have.

The reality went more like this: My son wanted to spend much of his time with his friends. He wanted to be treated like an adult, though many times failed to act like one. With an ever-lengthening but still untouched to-do list (the forms, appointments, shopping), I reverted to type and nagged. He pushed back and pushed away in a phenomenon known commonly as “spoiling the nest.” The pain for both of us of his imminent departure brought to the surface some very unattractive behavior. He was surely nervous about leaving and, despite the fact that I had 18 years of warning about this date, my sadness was often expressed as frustration with him.

At some point, we got a hold of ourselves and got him ready to go. And this process—the talking, explaining, shopping, preparing his new home (okay, grimy dorm room) and more talking—got us both to where we needed to be emotionally and, eventually, logistically.

As they head out the door, I feel my kids should be fully cognizant of the enormous opportunity, truly a gift, that they have been given. In the sweep of human history, very few have been offered the chance to pause life for study, growth and reflection. And while we, and they, may have always known college would be part of their lives, no one should be given a gift of this magnitude until they can begin to appreciate it.

I felt this was the summer to sit down and discuss the really big things in life, the ones we have always wanted our kids to know. Tell them why we married their parent, what we have learned about marriage, good and bad, and the kind of wife/mother or husband/father we hope they will one day be. Tell them everything we know about being a sibling in adulthood, and the hopes that we have for them now that they will live apart from their brothers or sisters. Explain how we have loved being a parent and the agony and transcendent joy it has brought to our lives. This talk will feel sad and poignant, but we must take a step back and talk about the really big things in life.

College may be the best four years of our kids’ lives, but that does not mean that things won’t go wrong. Alcohol for our freshmen is both tacitly allowed and legally forbidden, and our kids need to understand that their own good judgment (impaired as it may be by alcohol or even drugs) is often the only thing standing between them and trouble. Our own history with substances and that of our family’s, however unpleasant or uncomfortable, may need to be part of the discussion.

This summer’s talks need to touch upon mental health and sexual misconduct. Colleges spend a great deal of time talking about sexual assault with incoming students, but that does not get parents off the hook for discussing this topic. Stress and anxiety are rising on college campuses. Our kids need to understand how and when to reach out for help for themselves, and how to be a friend in times of crisis. This is the time to tell our kids the importance of taking care of others, of being there when they are needed, and of being the kind of friend they hope to have.

We need to tell our kids how we failed and recovered, how our own judgment let us down sometimes, and how both good and bad luck play a role in our lives. This is a moment for real honesty. We need to shed part of our superhero image if we are to have an adult relationship with our kids, and that is an armor that is very painful to remove. They need to know that we remember what it means to be 18 and will be there for them if they need us.

It is all too easy to send our kids off to college with well-worn and somewhat meaningless clichés. Make lots of friends, stay out of trouble, and perhaps the least helpful, these will be the best four years of your life. I’ll own up right now to passing off some of these empty turns of phrase as real parental wisdom. But there is far greater wisdom—from professors, recent grads and mountains of academic research—I could have offered my kids.

Many studies of what it takes to thrive in college emphasize a few important points: Take a small class every semester or year, live on campus freshman year, join a study group, get meaningfully involved in campus activities, get to know a professor, and take some classes that you will love. Professor Michelle Miller-Adams, in a letter to her freshman nephew, told him she could predict a student’s grade by how often he shows up and where he sits in her lecture hall (hint: not the back).

When I surveyed a group of seniors and recent grads from a number of universities on what their experiences had taught them, they offered a slightly different path to success. One recent grad advises freshmen to find “a constant,” which she describes as “an activity you’ve done your whole life, a hobby, a book series you re-read for comfort right before bed, a TV show, a ‘splurge’ you indulge in once a week at the local (overpriced) coffee shop, or something else entirely.” This “constant” will be something that will help you through the tumult of college and young adulthood.

The students advise freshmen to reach out from the moment they arrive on campus to make new friends, as everyone is very open in the early days of the fall semester (and that changes later), and suggest joining study groups before the midterm rush. They point out that many students who had never needed academic help in high school need it now, and should not be shy about asking. They ask freshmen to remember that healthy eating and exercise are on them now, as there is no mom around to nag. Finally, a number of older kids remind freshmen that everyone gets homesick or feels lost or down, and that pushing themselves a bit socially will help them get through this period.

By the time summer ended, my son was ready to go. We had talked endlessly all summer. His dad and I had told him things we would want an adult to know, and in turn, he shared a great deal with us and almost began to act like one. As I moved him into his dorm, I told myself, this is as it should be, he is where he needs to be, and with 18 years of preparation, I am ready. I got this. Then I hugged him goodbye, climbed into my car and sobbed uncontrollably all the way home.

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