If College is a Gift, is it “No Strings Attached?”

College is a gift. I said that to my sons while they were in high school and I repeated it to them, ad nauseam, once they got to college. I wanted them to know that four years of focusing almost entirely on themselves was not an experience most people were lucky enough to have.

If college is a gift from parents, should they attach strings?

I made sure they understood that the chance to wander through your days in a fog of self-absorption, is not a God-given right. The day would come, I warned them, when they would need to earn a living, care for others and contribute to the real world.

I told them that college was a gift so that they did not squander that brief four-year window and so they could recognize their good fortune.

I also told them it was a gift, so that they would do it my way.

In my mind college was a brief utopian period. It was a time when academic, artistic, musical, intellectual, social and athletic riches were all at your fingertips and anyone who appreciated their luck in finding themselves in this paradise would gorge themselves on this opportunity.

It seemed completely clear to me that once I impressed upon my kids that this was a chance that few had, and they would only experience briefly once, they would make certain to attend every visiting lecturer, dance concert, art show or sporting event. They would seek out the best professors and take the most challenging classes.

My husband laughed. He asked me to cast my mind back a few decades. He asked me to think of what I really got out of college. He suggested I try to see the world through 17-year old eyes. And it all came back.

I did not take the hardest classes I could, or anything close to that. Sure it is great to challenge yourself in college, but it is far more important to get to know a professor, find a subject that speaks to you and take a course load you can manage without going into a tailspin. Depression and anxiety on college campuses are epidemic, often because kids feel they cannot measure up to some unwritten set of expectations. Pushing my kids to do what I myself never did is both hypocritical and dangerous.

Life takes twists and turns that none of us anticipate. While I may look back and see a path that leads from education on through adulthood, by looking more closely it is clear that unforeseen events play a large point in all of our lives. The experiences in college that lead us to where we are going in life all to often happen outside the classroom in an entirely unplanned set of events. The most defining moments of our educations often come in ways we could have never guessed.

Get out of your room I tell them, turn off that stupid XBox and take advantage of what your school has to offer, I say. And then I remember that some of the happiest adults I know are those who, three decades later, still count their college roommates among their closest friends. If that extra hour of hanging with the roomies pays dividends in a lifelong friendship, I am pretty sure that is time well spent.

As parents we may think we know what are the most important things to get out of college, but we may be very wrong. Our kids are not us and their experiences are truly unique to them. The world they are entering values very different skills and experiences than the world we entered in the 1980s. Who am I to say what will best prepare them for a world none of us have seen yet?

How they spend their time is none of my business. Letting go in high school was hard, it was the emotional equivalent of ripping off a bandage. But if there was ever a time to remove my influence from my kids’ lives, surely college is that time. If I am right and college is a gift, then it is theirs to do with as they choose. If they are learning, happy or content and moving forward on the path to adulthood, then they have used this gift well.


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Photo credit: Nazareth College

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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