College Students: The Parents Learn, Too

With two sons in college and another working his way in that direction, I should have acquired some real insights into parenting college students, wisdom that only a mother in my position could have gained. Instead, I have learned some very basic truths about life with college students.

college students, campus

Filthy Dorm Rooms

College dorm rooms never get cleaned, never. So when a parent has not actually set foot in their child’s dorm room since move-in day, a very unpleasant and foul surprise awaits. I have real trouble resisting the urge to straighten, so it is best if I just stay away. On move-out day I come prepared with garbage bags and old clothes; until then I meet my kids at the Starbucks in their college towns.

Junior  Semester Abroad

College students can go overseas and figure out all sorts of things that they never could when they were at home. While I am happy to answer the myriad of mundane questions my college kids pose (is khaki a color or a white, how long can pizza sit out without going bad, can my roommates and I use the family Netflix) it is nice to see what they can do for themselves when stranded on foreign shores and forced to cope.

Growth Spurt

Even kids who are grown can go through seismic changes, changes beyond recognition. I thought the high school years were when our kids transformed. In that, I was sorely mistaken.

Dorm Non-essentials

Things get broken, lost, stolen or ruined faster in a college dorm faster than anyplace else on Earth. All that careful dorm shopping parents do each summer is strewn across floors, accidentally thrown out with the trash or used of purposes other than it was intended. No use getting frustrated and angry, just buy less, or nothing next year.

Do not shop and buy everything your college students might need at one of the big box stores. We shop because it gives us the feeling of helping them in this major life transition. It is easy to forget that they can have what they really need delivered to their door. I arrived at my kid’s schools in May only to discover that many of those “must have” purchases were still in the packages under their beds.

Thanks for Thanksgiving

No matter how much kids were dying to get back to school in September, no matter how sick of their mess we parents were, or how sick of our rules the kids were….everyone is happy to be back together for Thanksgiving. Whether it is the brevity of the holiday or the fact that it is impossible not to be happy about a celebration that centers on nothing but food, college students are relieved to be back in their own beds and parents are thrilled to have them there.

When freshmen return to college after their first Thanksgiving, many discover for the first time that they really are where they belong. That first fall semester can be intimidating, particularly for kids who go away to school without friends. But returning after the first break, many college students realize that they truly have new friends and a new place to call home.

December Blues

In December college students will call home unhappy, and their pain grips at parent’s heart. There will be no particular obvious reason for this malaise. This is when, as a parent, you remind yourself that the nights are long, the days are short and in many places bitterly cold. Fall semester may have been fun but exams are at hand. All attention is focused on getting home for the holidays, but a mountain of studying and hard work stands in their way. Is it any wonder college kids feel a little down?

Year’s Up for College Students

Come the end of spring, college students are perfectly capable of moving out of their dorms on their own, as one of my children has categorically proved this. But why would they, when parents are so willing to help? The manager of one son’s dorm, who has been in that position since 1973, gave me an earful as he saw me carrying my son’s belongings to my car, “I watched your generation grown up and now I have watched your generation bring up their own kids,” he scolded me. “You ruined them, spoiled them rotten…why did you do that?” I didn’t feel empowered to speak for my entire generation so I shrugged my shoulders and managed to drop everything piled in my arms to the ground. The answer to this question is surely another post.

What have you learned from your college students?

Colleges in NY NJ



  1. says

    My son’s still at home while he’s at the local junior college. He plans to go to a 4-year college afterward, but still can’t afford to live away because we don’t qualify for financial aid, can’t afford the tuition AND room and board, and he’s still a dependent. We told him if he really in truly wants to live in a dorm then he could move out of the house and establish his independence and then the FA office will look at HIS tax returns. However he finds that a little too “hard” to swallow so I guess he’ll be with us until he graduates. Which I don’t mind since I cannot imagine him not around. But THAT is for another post.

    • says

      And a wonderful post. Life with college students is a very different stage of parenting, I hope you write about it. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. BCE says

    I have 3 children, the youngest in his senior year at university. He chose to go abroad for college all 4 years and is the most independent 21 year old I have ever met. I never moved him in an the older two I moved in their freshman year and out at graduation. The hardest thing for me was when I went to my middle child’s frat house at graduation where he lived for 2.5 years and realized it should have been condemned. He knew if I ever saw it, I would not pay for it so I only had the pleasure the day he moved out! Ugh!
    The interesting thing is that all my children have lived abroad, Belgium, South Africa, Scotland and London, yet when they come home they revert to being dependent on mom and dad. I guess we all want that feling of being taken care of by our family.

    • says

      I agree it is the strangest thing with our grown and almost grown kids. Families seem to slip back into old patterns so easily. Siblings, parents all assume long held roles even as their lives have moved on in other ways. Sound like your kids have had some amazing adventures.

  3. says

    My oldest only being 11 I’m not there yet. But, your description of the December malaise reminded me of my mom saying the most useful thing anyone said to her at my college orientation was that at some point her child would call and sound like the sky was falling and then she’d be left hanging, but it was all okay. And she said that did happen with each of her kids, and it helped to know that was common.

    • says

      It is so hard for them when it gets cold and dark and their first major set of exams loom. And then, so many just move on, a freshman hurdle that so many just need to get past.

  4. says

    I learned many of these same things, Lisa. Probably the most important thing I learned is don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to. We’ve been so used to knowing about every detail of our children’s lives for so long, but sometimes it’s better if they keep a few things to themselves. Trust me.

  5. says

    I love the meeting them at Starbucks tip. Then everyone’s happy. And Thanksgiving does, indeed, make a nice break point – each generation has had a taste of the separation and each is happy to reunite. And what conjures more “home” memories than Thanksgiving?

    • says

      Thanks Barbara. Have to drop some things off at one of their schools tomorrow…do I dare go near the dorm room?

  6. Carpool Goddess says

    Our youngest, a college sophomore, is already hankering for the long stretch of holidays at home, and it’s not yet Thanksgiving. So hard when they’re far away.

    • says

      SO so so hard, especially when it is far and the holiday a long way off. We need to remember this when they move back in with us in a few years, ha!

  7. says

    You speak simple truth! My son just finished his college career, and now we are on a different journey: finding a job and learning that being a grown up isn’t all that much fun.

  8. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    So true, all of it. What I remember about our freshmen’s Thanksgiving visit was the way they talked about “going home,” meaning back to school. That gave my heart a pang at first.

  9. says

    We moved our son into his house his sophomore year and haven’t been back to visit him since. He’d rather come home. But when we skype, I can clearly see the mess behind him – and that’s only in his bedroom!

  10. says

    With the first son, we spent hours making lists (yes, much ended up being non-essentials)… we waited for that first call (before the days of texting..) and it was such a huge deal. Recently, our youngest left to college. He calls and sometimes I miss his call. I call him back and I get his voice mail… He doesn’t need me! Yikes!!! (he did call the first week to ask what order to put the detergent in or the clothes…).