When you send your teen off to college, there’s no denying it’s excruciating to let go. And while it’s true that physically removing yourself from their body when it’s time to say goodbye is literally painful (and something that still causes me stress four years later), that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s the letting go of the hundreds of things you’ve done for them for the past 18 years that can be excruciating yet vitally important (and even exhilarating).
Recently, a mom in a college parents’ Facebook group shared that she had messaged her daughter’s suitemates and given them a list of items they should bring to the dorm. Yep, you read that right: she messaged her daughter’s suitemates. But wait. It gets better. One item on the list was toilet paper. As in, so they don’t have to walk to the dorm’s front desk and get it themselves.
I’ll wait for you to remove your face from your hands.
Listen, I’m not judging. I’ve been in the “it’s two months until my baby goes to college and I’m freaking out” mode. It’s easy to panic (at least that’s what I’m going to hopefully assume was happening in the toilet paper case). It’s natural to want to help. But there’s a definite line between helping your college kid and enabling them, and it’s drawn with something far more substantial than toilet paper.
By the time your child leaves for college, you’ve (hopefully) already passed the torch on more than a few of the tasks they will need to have mastered to be able to survive without you; things like how to do laundry, how to speak up for themselves, how to manage a bank account, and knowing how long to wait before taking more Advil (which they will forget every time they take Advil).
You’ve maybe even congratulated yourself on how much your helicopter blades have slowed down by this point. Congrats! But now that they’re in college, it’s time to shut that sucker down.
Like it or not, folks, it’s time to step away from the child: the child who is technically an adult, but who won’t have the chance to be if you are still doing all the things for them.
When my daughter left for college she wouldn’t ask for a new glass in a restaurant if hers was dirty (which meant drinking out of a dirty glass more than a few times). However, after putting her in charge of everything from transferring her medications to scheduling all her own medical appointments (even when she was home on breaks) to figuring out how to solve the multitude of issues that came up with housing, class schedules, etc., she was not only able to travel around Australia on her own (after being in control of all her study abroad details) but emerged from college a much more confident and self-sufficient adult.
I know it can be hard to let go of the things you’ve been in control of — things you know you can do faster, easier, and frankly with more success. But giving your adult-child adult responsibility — and yes, even the chance to screw things up — is vitally important to their success as, well, an adult.
What parents of college students should not do
Here’s a handy list of some things that should be off-limits for parents once their kid is in college. And no, “messaging suite mates to purchase toilet paper” isn’t on there. I know you won’t ever forget that one.
*Disclaimer: It goes without saying that in emergency situations — especially where your child’s safety or the safety of others is a concern — stepping back in is always okay.
Make appointments for your college student.
Medical, dental, meeting with an advisor, etc. They know their schedule better than you…right? Right??
2. Manage prescriptions.
Have them contact the pharmacy and get medication prescriptions (as well as contact lenses) transferred to their college town, either at a local pharmacy or via mail service. And when it’s time to refill, have them do it. It’s time.
3. Be their alarm clock.
They need to learn how to get up and out the door themselves. Yes, even when they have a big exam — especially when they have a big exam. On the flip side, do not call them and tell them when it’s time to go to bed. Miraculously, they’ll manage to figure out their sleep schedules without you.
4. Contact professors/question grades.
By high school, your child needs to be able to advocate for himself so that by college it comes naturally. Standing up for himself — in all areas of life — is a valuable tool that almost always is rewarded. And if not? Still makes him feel damn good about himself.
5. Manage money.
Obviously, you may still be transferring money for housing payments, books, etc., but before they go to college make sure you’re all on the same page about what accounts they’ll use, how to actually use them and what will happen to them if they spend too much of your money.
6. Manage schedules.
Whether it be personal, work, or class schedules, it’s time to step back and let them figure out how to manage their time and responsibilities. Can you offer helpful suggestions? Of course, but please stop before you actually email a color-coded calendar for them to tack on the wall.
7. Solve roommate issues.
Another huge no-no and one that you might think is obvious, but it happens all the time. Do not call or text your child’s RA, or worse, the roommate or the roommate’s parents (unless it is a safety concern, obviously, but stealing your daughter’s Pop-Tarts does not qualify). Stay out of it. The end.
8. Make travel plans.
Learning how to book a ticket on a bus or a plane, not to mention figure out how to get to the terminal or the airport on time, is a valuable future tool, especially on the next family vacation when you know they can take over the planning.
9. Buy/order birth control.
If they’re responsible enough to have sex, they need to be responsible enough to protect themselves. (Obviously, there should be more than a few conversations about this as well.)
10. Replace items they’ve lost or broken.
That phone they dropped and stepped on at a frat party? The laptop they left in Starbucks? The fourth lost dorm key? You break it you buy it, sister. Trust me, they’ll take better care of it if they know they’re on the hook for replacing it.
11. Stock their bar if they’re underage.
You’d be surprised how many parents do this. It’s in direct correlation to the number of parents who are surprised when their kids make stupid, alcohol-fueled mistakes. Want to be the “cool” parent? Then talk talk talk to your college kid about alcohol consumption open and honestly, but whatever your stance might be on underage drinking and its realities, don’t be the one who facilitates it literally. That doesn’t make you cool, it just makes you irresponsible.
12. Show up unannounced.
I get it. It’s tempting. I may or may not have even done it (hides face). But unless you know for sure it’s going to be met with a happy squeal and a big hug (mine was), you might be the one getting a big surprise. Tread carefully on this one.
13. Attend parties with them.
Please. Just don’t.
14. Involve yourself in Sorority/Fraternity Rush.
Obviously, if your child is a legacy, you will be somewhat involved, but this will most likely be before rush begins. Once your child is rushing, stay out of it. Offer advice if asked, obviously, but remember, they are not you. Let them follow their own instincts. Trust them to make a decision that is good for them, even if you weren’t in the Greek system or have already ordered matching letter t-shirts.
Letting go of so much so quickly is hard, I get it. But there are so many things you can — and should — still be doing: listening to them, caring for them, offering solicited advice, sending regular care packages full of junk food, and supporting them through all the changes. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but by letting go of over-inserting yourself in their life you are actually giving them the biggest gift of all: independence and the resulting self-confidence.
And don’t worry, they’ll still text you all the time to ask how much Advil they can take.
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