Starting College: A Guide for Parents: 2013

There are many things I tell the parents in the hour that they sit with me on what is for them among the most emotional days of their lives. Here are some of the things that I want them to know. I hope they are of value to other parents of other new students now readying themselves to set out for other places.
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African American mother helping daughter pack for college
African American mother helping daughter pack for college

It is midsummer, 2013. With memories of high school graduations still strong but sadly beginning to fade, as in the cascade of summers before, millions of families are busily preparing for a signal event in their lives -- sending a child off to start college. To be sure, most things about starting college are the same for these students and families as they were in the past -- even the same as they were for the very parents who send them off. However, much is different as well. Advice abounds for the students themselves; I will provide little more here. My intended audience is those proud and even wisely worried parents, they who will pay the tuition, pack the cars, provide the monthly expenses, feel the changes in their daily lives, bear the loss, face their own growing older, and ultimately experience the loneliness. This is what my grandmother used to call a kumsitz; we need to sit down, before all the chaos begins and have a quiet talk. I hope it is helpful. It's meant to be.

In the opening paragraphs of his novel, White Noise, the amazing Don Delillo evokes an image that will soon be played out across America -- the return or first arrival of college students on college campuses:

"I've witnessed this spectacle every September for 21 years. It is a brilliant event, invariably. The students greet each other with comic cries... The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction... They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition... This assembly... as much as anything they might do in the course of the year , more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation." (1986, p. 1)

Like the narrator in Delillo's novel, I, too, have witnessed this spectacle, in my case for 43 years at Emory University, and it truly is a "brilliant event." It has not only been my thrill to witness the arrival of new freshmen, but my privilege and honor to have been afforded the opportunity to talk with parents bringing their children to Emory. I began this annual "Talk to Parents" when I was director of the Emory University Psychological Student Counseling Center in an effort to help them and their children deal with the transitions all of them were about to experience. I am no longer director of the counseling center, but I have continued to talk with the parents of our new students; this will be my 36th year of doing so.

There are many things I tell the parents in the hour that they sit with me on what is for them among the most emotional days of their lives. Here are some of the things that I want them to know. I hope they are of value to other parents of other new students now readying themselves to set out for other places.

1. This is one of the most emotional times in the lives of parents, especially if they are bringing their oldest or youngest child to school. Bringing their first child represents the culmination of one phase of their family's life and the beginning of another; they are moving from a period of stability as a family with children into the transition at the other end of which they will be a family whose children have grown. For parents with more than one child, this "launching" of the first child is a "shot across the bow," a notice served that the empty nest is slowly beginning to take shape somewhere up ahead. For the parents of a single child or for those bringing their youngest, the empty nest awaits them upon their return home. I tell the first time college parents that it will take them several months to adjust to their newly patterned family at home. I tell the empty-nesters that the adjustment will take several years. It will. But it is not all, or even mostly, bad. This is an exciting time, indeed.

2. I tell the parents that just because their children are at college, it does not mean that they are "college students." The best description I have found is to say they are "high school students at college." This is because it takes time to learn how to be a college student -- how to study, how to eat, how to do laundry, how to play, how to handle money, etc. My best estimate is that this process requires about one semester by which time the students will have studied for and taken major exams, written papers, given in-class reports, messed up, done well, fended off the "freshman fifteen" weight gain, drunk gallons of coffee or other stimulating beverages, eaten uncountable pizzas and attended a variety of college events, some noteworthy, some forgettable. I urge the parents to await the emergence of their college student with patience.

This brings me to number three.

3. Waiting patiently for the "college student" to emerge means not doing what seems to come naturally to modern parents. They are problem-solvers; they are action-oriented; they are capable. They want their children to succeed in their lives and they want to be sure to help as much as they can. Here's what I tell them: During the course of normal events at college, your children will face problems that need solving. Roommate problems, social problems, registration problems, problems with specific subjects or professors. There are two ways for these problems to get solved. Way number one: parents call the school and talk to the Office of the Dean, or the Director of Residence Life, or even the president. What happens? The problem gets solved. Oh, but there's one other thing that happens -- their children are weakened. Not only are the children not given the chance to learn how to solve the problem and to grow in self-confidence from doing so, they are also "told" by their parents' interventions that Mom and Dad do not believe that they can take care of themselves, increasing the likelihood that they will remain dependent on their parents to solve their problems which results in parents continuing to intervene which tells the students they can't take care of themselves... you get the picture. The bottom line is this: either way the problems get solved. But... if parents solve them, the kids are weakened or prevented from growing. If the kids do it, the problem is still solved but they are stronger and moving toward a readiness to live their lives independently. One thing I add to drive home my urging that parents let kids deal with things on their own is this: Someday Mom and Dad, these children will be adults and their parents (you) will be elderly and in need of being cared for. What sort of people do you want taking care of you? Unsure people afraid to make good decisions and reach solutions with confidence or ones whose parents wisely sat back and allowed them to grow in strength and wisdom?

This year, 2013, I must add one more thing here, and this is that the rate of tension and anxiety in new college students seems to have risen significantly in the past 10 years. Estimates are that around 30 percent of them report experiencing some form of anxiety and 10 percent say they feel significantly depressed. Some of these emotions are college-related; some pre-exist the beginning of college -- the disquieting truth is that young people are very stressed out these days. Most of these emotions are understandable and not uncommon reactions to increased demands and/or being away from home. Thus the majority of the time, my advice above about staying back and letting them find help on their own still stands. BUT, parents know their children better than anyone else and if they hear what I call "that voice" from their children -- the voice which is different from ordinary complaining, the voice that really means the child is in trouble, they should call the college. Don't come running, just call the college. Good places to start would be the Office of the Dean of Students or the Dean of the College, perhaps the Resident Advisor of the child's dormitory. No matter who is called, all the relevant people will be notified and help will be set into motion. College professionals are very experienced in dealing with these situations. You encourage your children and support them. Express confidence in their ability to deal with what's going on and wait for them to work things out.

4. One last thing. I said earlier that the day that parents leave their children at college -- or send them off if they are traveling there alone -- is among the most emotional days of parents' and children's lives. It is a moment that comes along once in a lifetime. Each child only starts college once. Given the uniqueness of the day, it falls into the category that includes wedding days, special anniversaries, even days on which family losses occurred -- big days -- days that stick in our memories throughout life. Such moments are rare. They have power. They give us as parents one-time opportunities to say things to our children that will stick with them not only because of what is said, but because of when it is said.

Here is what I tell the parents: think of what you want to tell your children when you finally take leave of them and they go off to their dorm and the beginning of their new chapter in life and you set out for the slightly emptier house that you will now live in. What thoughts, feelings and advice do you want to stick? "Always make your bed!"? "Don't wear your hair that way!"? Surely not. This is a moment to tell them the big things. Things you feel about them as children, as people. Wise things. Things that have guided you in your life. Ways that you hope they will live. Ways that you hope they will be. Big things. Life-level things.

I tell the parents lastly, that I, myself, was never able to do this, because I was too emotional and couldn't quite say what I wanted without crying or with a desirable level of equanimity. All is not lost, I tell them and I tell you. As soon as you can after you leave the campus, write your child a letter -- with a pen -- on real paper -- in your own hand. The first sentence should be something like, "When I left you at the campus today,(or at the airport , etc.) I could not tell you what I wanted to say, so I've written it all down..." Mail the letter to the child. It will not be deleted; it will not be tossed away; it will be kept. Its message will stick. Always.

With this last bit of advice, I will bid the parents well and assure them that the admissions committee did not make a mistake and that their children really do belong at college. At Emory, I will tell them that of the 1,300 graduates of Emory College in the graduating class this past May only six graduated with a perfect 4.0. I will remind them that this means that 1,294 got at least one grade that was not an A. I will urge them to stand back and let these talented young people begin to grow. I will tell them that being the parent of a college student is one of the most prideful things that they will ever experience. I thank them for working so hard so that college professors like me can have the joy of working with the children that they have so carefully nurtured. I then tell them to go home. The kids will be OK.

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