My college sophomore bought a rolling cart for her dorm room this year. On move-in day, she cleared a space on her crowded suite floor and remove the cart from its packaging. Or, rather, she removed from a box the many pieces of what could conceivably turn into a cart.
I watched her approach this project from my vantage point on top of her bunkbed, which I was making up for her not because she couldn’t do it herself but because my mom has long insisted that mothers are supposed to make up their kids’ beds when they move to a new place, and I was trying to honor my maternal heritage.
I observed my daughter methodically and successfully tackling her task. She did not ask for my help. She did not need it. She approached that cart the same way I know she’ll approach the rest of her college career: she’ll gather her supplies, take instruction, get organized, and set to work. Along the way, she’ll make mistakes and have to start some things over, but in the end, she’ll get the job done.
How to parent your college student
And yet, there are things she still needs from her dad and me. We let our college students go, and this is right. But they are still connected to us, and this is also right.
Our big kids continue to need us not because we have somehow failed as their parents, but because we have succeeded in building trust and relationship with them.
Our college students still need our encouragement. Our kids’ encouragement tanks do not have a lifetime fill capacity, as if we can pour in enough affirming, reassuring, and comforting words by the time they turn 18 to last them the rest of their lives. The demands of college life—academic, social, emotional, physical—drain these tanks, so our students need us to replenish them regularly.
I once roomed with a girl whose parents let her tank run dry, and she ended up breaking down. As much as it’s within my reasonable and healthy control, I’m going to keep my daughter’s encouragement reserves topped off.
Our college students still need our guidance. Yes, they are smart and independent. Yes, they have to forge their own paths, and that’s going to come with some bumpy roads and detours. But we can be a map for our travelers. We can offer “directional assistance,” even if they do choose to go their own route.
This is why I’m telling my driven student not to follow in my footsteps and make her whole college experience about a GPA. And every time I see a post from her about taking a break from studying to hang out with her friends, I think that maybe my mom GPS has steered her right.
Our college students still need our boundaries. They’re testing limits and drawing their own lines. But they still need to know what we consider right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, acceptable and unacceptable. They need to know that at a time in their lives when so much is changing, some things stay the same.
They need to know that in maintaining certain boundaries, we aren’t trying to protect them from bad nearly so much as we’re trying to preserve them for good. And they need to know that our fierce love for them doesn’t mean we’re going to bail them out of the consequences if they choose to cross those boundary lines.
Our college students still need our reassurance. Our kids are being hit with a slew of choices every day: which classes to take, which major to choose, which friends to make, which (if any) romantic relationships to pursue, which passions to feed now and which ones are best put on hold for the future.
And they’re processing all these options with still-under-development brains. They need our assurance that every decision doesn’t come down to all right or all wrong. They need to know that even unintentional “bad” choices can result in good outcomes. They need to know we’re rooting for them and that we believe in them, especially when they don’t believe in themselves.
Our college students still need our presence. They need to hear from us, even when they don’t respond (much). They need to know that home is still a safe, welcoming place. They need to know that who we’ve always been to and for them hasn’t changed overnight, even if they feel like they themselves have.
Our college students still need our help. For all their ability and responsibility, they’re still kids in many respects, and they’re still always our kids. That status doesn’t get checked at the dorm room door. So go ahead: send the care package. Make a phone call for them that they don’t want to make. Crawl up on that loft bed and wrestle the sheets onto it…and while you’re up there, enjoy the view of what they’re doing on their own.
Our college students still need our love. It’s what they needed before they were college students. It’s what they’ll need after they’re done being college students (whatever “done” looks like and whenever it happens). And love—tough, unconditional, and otherwise—is what they still need now, not because we’ve missed something along the way as parents, but because we’ve hit what matters most.