Each fall, colleges gear up for one of the biggest days of the year: New Student Move-in Day. Where I work, this means the college comes alive again. Dorms light up, athletic fields are manicured, and to the demise of every student, parking lots fill to the brim. The excitement is contagious and I love to watch new students and their families as they nervously meet roommates, have their nose in the campus map to find the cafeteria, and proudly wear their student ID in a new lanyard around their neck.
Admittedly, I have never dropped off a son or daughter at college.
My son is only a year old, and I still struggle to drop him off at his babysitter’s house. So while I haven’t experienced the college drop off, I have witnessed it countless times. Working in Residence Life gives me a unique perspective to this big life milestone. I have witnessed countless student drop offs, welcomed hundreds of college freshman, and watched as many students adjust, learn, thrive, and at times, fail in their new college experience.
Each year I get many, many questions from parents. I am pulled aside to answer questions like, “Will she be okay?” and “Can you wake my child for class in the morning?” I can’t begin to understand how difficult leaving your son or daughter must be, but I know that I am so thankful that my parents left me at college, as it was one of the most formative experiences of my life.
Here are some things I’ve learned over the past few years:
1. Let them make mistakes.
If I could share a few words of advice to parents of freshman, I’d say, “Let them make mistakes – even if these may have long-term consequences.” This is tough love, something I also need to learn as a mother of a soon-to-be toddler.
No doubt, some decisions made by 18-year-olds can affect them long term. Missing class can lead to bad grades and this could prevent graduate school admission. Choosing the easy class load may not prepare them for the entrance exam. Choosing an extra-curricular may take away the majority of their study time. These are tough mistakes to watch your child make, but having them learn these lessons as a freshman can really help in the long term.
2. Support, trust, and empower.
Building on point #1, learn to support, trust, and empower your college student. I know what you’re thinking: “They are only 18-years-old!” or “This kid was born in the year 2000; they can’t do this on their own!” For many parents finding the balance of supporting their kids yet making them aware of potential mistakes can be challenging. It certainly can look different for each kiddo. I remember my parents’ response when I told them I wanted to attend a more expensive private college. They asked tough questions; they challenged me to seek all of the financial aid I could find; and they did the math to help me understand what I was getting into. In the end though, they let me make the decision. And as an 18-year-old, I felt so empowered.
For some parents this may look like asking hard questions, while for others, it may mean holding your tongue and supporting the decision regardless of the outcome. But remember that being your child’s number one supporter and showing them trust may sometimes cause your child to think critically and take their decisions a bit more seriously.
3. Let go of the little things.
Some lessons won’t have long-term consequences; these are the ones I encourage parents to really let go of. Eating microwavable macaroni and cheese in their room for each meal will inevitably lead to the freshman 15 weight gain. Pulling all-nighters are certainly not the best way to get papers written. And you’re right, wearing flip-flops in seven-degree weather is very dumb. But these things are a part of the growing process. From what I’ve seen, these things are actually very good for them to learn on their own.
4. Reach out…a little.
On a more practical note, call them, but only sometimes! I tell parents not to call often and I tell the students to call more often. I say this knowing the parent will likely call too much and the student not enough. Tethering your student to home or encouraging them to come home on weekends (I think this is the worst thing you can do!) prevents your student from putting down the roots they’ll need to build thriving relationships. Ultimately this can affect their whole college experience. So call them sometimes and send an encouraging text, but let them begin to build their lives as a college student. And remember: lack of calling or reaching out to Mom and Dad doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t miss you – it can also mean that they’re thriving, connecting, and are too busy having fun. And this is what you’ve prepared them to do!
5. You aren’t their savior.
I do not claim to be an expert in the psychology or development behind this season of life for your student. I also realize that each child is different; some need tethering, while others need to cut the string completely. These points are general observations about things I’ve seen over the years. But I think the most important thing to remember is that you are not their savior. You’ve prepared them for this season and you’ve poured so much of yourself into raising your child, but ultimately you aren’t the one who can make everything work out for them. Trust me when I say that no amount of controlling or manipulating each situation to have it work out perfectly will guarantee that they will turn out as perfect adults.