I knew this day was coming and now it has arrived. Glancing at my Facebook, I see that many of my friends from high school and college now have children who are college freshmen. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read statements like ‘taking Johnny to orientation’ or ‘setting up Susie’s dorm room.’ It used to be that when I looked out at parents of freshmen, I felt like a young whippersnapper and worried that these parents wouldn’t trust me as an academic advisor or a professor. But now the parents and I are of the same age. We meet eye to eye.
I don’t have children, but I have been a part of the lives of college students for over two decades. I’ve taught at FSU, at Georgia Southern, and since 1991, at Wofford College. I present this list of credentials because there are some things I’d like to say to the parents in my generation.
Seriously, can we talk? Because as someone who sees things from the ‘other end,’ so to speak, there are some things I would like to say to you.
First of all, pat yourself on the back for a job well done. You’ve guided your young person through childhood and the teenage years. Getting into college is no easy feat, as you know from the long hours you spent helping with application forms and essays. Your kid has walked across the high school graduation platform and taken the college entrance tests. He or she is ready to go forward, and you’re the biggest reason why this very special young person has succeeded and shows such promise for the future. Good for you. And, quite frankly, it WAS a harder job than it was for our parents! You had to contend with the bad influences of cable TV, the internet, cell phones, etc., etc. The worst our parents had to worry about was a random dirty word on television! You’ve navigated the shark-infested waters of drugs, sex, violence and general 21st century ickiness; I admire you for all you’ve done, and deep inside, I bet your child does too.
Now here comes the hardest part. Go home and live your own life. Be just like those commercials where the college student is worrying about her parents while, in actuality, they’re at a rock concert or surfing at the beach. Your life is not ‘over’ when your kid goes to school. It is just starting, at a whole new level. Make your kids jealous of all the fun you’re having. Haven’t you heard that living well is the best revenge? (Especially for those nights your kid violated curfew, dated a punk rocker, or brought home bad grades).
It is important to have your own life because it is time to let them have theirs. As much as I am grateful for cell phones now, I’m glad I didn’t have one in college. I was a late bloomer who really needed to learn how to handle things on her own. If I’d had access to text messaging, I would have been even slower, far more willing to contact my mother and let her make the decisions. Looking back, I think the ‘don’t call home collect unless it is an emergency’ rule was a positive thing for me. It is most likely the rule you lived by as well, my late 40s, early 50-something friends. Why not go a little old school and bring it back?
And I know you only want the best for your kid. I appreciate that you want to give them the things that you didn’t have—a flat screen TV, a great computer, a Lily Pulitzer bed set—because you are good parents and you love your children. But before you make that purchase, ask yourself a question: what does this say abut my expectations? Is this what college is really about? Don’t I look back and think about lessons I learned from not having everything I wanted in college? Maybe you didn’t have the million dollar meal plan, so you learned how to cook on a budget and in a single pan, a skill that has served you well. Maybe you didn’t have the newest, most fashionable clothes, so you learned to cultivate a style that was more about your personality than what you wore. Maybe without a TV in your room you went to the dorm lounge often, had lively conversations and met more people than you would have if you’d been holed up in your cubicle with your big-screen TV and your video game console. Maybe without a lot of distractions you actually got some sleep (which is something all freshmen need, no matter how much they deny it!). For pity sake, say ‘no’ to something, if for no other reason than every kid needs something to bellyache about in later years! Contrary to what your young person says, life will go on for him/her if you say ‘no’ to joining a Greek organization in the first semester or refuse to finance a Fall Break trip. Say no at least once. A sense of entitlement has been the most unattractive quality of this generation of college students; please do your part toward making a change in that.
I’m not asking you to be a tyrant, or to be a miser, or to abandon your child. But as someone who sees your young person every day, who watches your son or daughter grow, after 20 plus years of doing this I can tell you what your young person needs the most is not a toy or a trendy outfit or a big allowance so he/she can go Greek. What he/she needs is your love and your willingness to let your young person blaze a distinctive trail. This person isn’t a child anymore; even if you still feel like a kid (go you!) he/she doesn’t. While this son or daughter may not be ready for true economic or emotional independence, he or she is ready to start becoming an individual. She doesn’t need to hear ‘you have to be a doctor’ or ‘don’t study history, there’s no money in it.’ Nor does he need to hear ‘I expect you to be the same straight A student you were in high school.’ The best words you can say are “I want you to learn and I want you to have a good life. I’m here when you need me, but I’m not going to be here every moment. This is your time now and I want you to make the most of it. It’s going to be a great adventure.”
And then say the hardest word of all. Say goodbye. Not farewell, just goodbye.
And maybe pour yourself a drink or go catch a show. You’ve earned it.