Kids Going to College: A Survival Guide for Parents

Parenthood has two big transitions, when our children arrive and when they leave. Mary Dell and I managed the first and, with our older sons, we have faced the second. Now we face our youngest kids going to college, a moment we have looked forward to and dreaded for almost two decades.

Teens wearing white T shirts laughing and hanging out Shutterstock

A year ago when we considered this topic we were struck by the real wisdom offered by  Marshall P. Duke, Professor at Emory University in this wonderful piece he wrote for The Huffington Post.

“It is a moment that comes along once in a lifetime. Each child only starts college once. …Such moments are rare. They have power. They give us as parents one-time opportunities to say things to our children that will stick with them not only because of what is said, but because of when it is said.

Here is what I tell the parents: think of what you want to tell your children when you finally take leave of them and they go off to their dorm and the beginning of their new chapter in life and you set out for the slightly emptier house that you will now live in. What thoughts, feelings and advice do you want to stick? “Always make your bed!”? “Don’t wear your hair that way!”? Surely not. This is a moment to tell them the big things. Things you feel about them as children, as people. Wise things. Things that have guided you in your life. Ways that you hope they will live. Ways that you hope they will be. Big things. Life-level things.”

Professor Duke suggests a letter, that I did not write, to impart to  your now independent child all the important things you want them to know.  The perfect letter from parent to child will not be deleted but kept and the message absorbed.

When I read his exceptional piece and all I could think was, “I blew it.”  I have sent two sons off to college without any attention to the profound.  I was saddened  for the missed opportunity and hoped I might be redeemed with my third and final opportunity when my youngest son goes to college.

And then I read the very wise professor more carefully (as I urge you to.)  Our children will, hopefully, cross many important thresholds in their young adulthood.  There will be first jobs and real loves.  There will be engagements and marriages.  They will face heart-wrenching disappointments and the joys of parenthood. At each of these moments, if and when they occur, we have a chance to quietly offer our thoughts to be accepted or rejected, but to be heard.

For many of us, the milestone moment on the horizon is our kids going to college. While Professor Duke offers advice for the heart, here are practical suggestions from BTDT* moms.

Off to College:

Last year we asked a group of very experienced moms to share their collective wisdom on saying goodbye to the kids going to college. Their advice spans the gamut from the very practical to the very personal, from the trivial to the monumental.  Other friends, the authors of the great book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, offer professional advice

In the end, our job as parents is to leave them with both the right size sheets and a sense that they are well equipped for this next, independent stage of life.  The challenges are no greater or lesser than when they arrived eighteen years ago.

How to Get All this Done:

If you haven’t already gotten a reservation at a hotel for drop offs, visiting days, and graduation you are probably too late. Reserve as soon as they make their college decision.

In all the excitement of move-in day, remember to eat.  A day full of packing and unpacking can go south very quickly when it’s suddenly 4pm and energy levels are low (nobody wants a meltdown in front of their new roommate!)

Have some practice sessions doing laundry at home before attempting this daring task for the first time at school.  And yes, bringing a cheat sheet along is just fine.  To the parents whose children have conned them into paying for University laundry service (as mine did) – when they complain about the laundry service losing or ruining their clothing, remind them that they could do it themselves.

Tell them to take everything out of their pockets when they do their laundry, ink stains do not enhance any clothing item.

When they return for the summer designate a place in your house for all the “stuff” that comes home and will go right back in the fall….otherwise with multiple kids it gets lost among your other things as they dump stuff all over the house.

What they might need:

You know the basics but here are a few extras.

You can buy a hand vac and cleaning materials but they will never use them.  It is for you to use when you visit.

First thing to buy is a mattress cover to keep bed bugs out.  It zips the mattress in and you have no worries, at least about bed bugs.

Register at The Container Store to pick up at the location nearest to their dorm.  Over register for items because you don’t have to buy everything you picked out.  It is just conveniently waiting for you on site if you want to make the purchase.

Buy earphones in case a roommate is listening to music or only goes to sleep with the TV on.

Bring a simple tool kit, a hammer, screwdriver and the like. it will be borrowed a lot.

Above all, be healthy:

The first time one of my kids got sick freshman year, I wished I had sent throat lozenges, pain reliever and a thermometer.  And, also thought about asking my daughter to sign a health release form so that I could talk with the infirmary nurse.

Find  the closest 24 hour pharmacy…not just for setting your daughter up but in case she needs something in the middle of the night. At 3 am when she needs a pharmacy, you and she will be glad you located it in advance.

College health centers might be limited, so ask other parents whose kids are older or residents of the town your child will be in…..having a great internist available when your kid is really sick and far from home is very helpful.  Don’t forget to fax their health records to get them established long before your child might need the help.

Best Advice for getting your kid ready for college. Experts share how to get your head and heart ready for move-in to the college dorm

Tech Support:

Get TWO flash drives to back up the computer. Nothing worse than a call at 2 am telling you their computer crashed with their 20 page paper on it!

Try to get contact info for the university tech help center – the wireless printers NEVER work on move in day.  And we were never able to locate anyone to help.

They really only need one printer/room.  So all of those free printers that come along with the new mac you’ll be buying for college?  Take the cash instead if one of the roommates is bringing a wireless printer

Set up find my phone/iPad/iMac – sadly, you will probably need to use it.

And most important, Mom and Dad Support:

Don’t project your angst. They have enough on their minds with new roommates and surroundings. The details, in time, will take care of themselves.

Take their lead – even though you have more experience – this is their moment.

Put your need to be needed second to their need to find their own way.

It doesn’t all have to be done perfectly – even if it’s easier. This is their turn to figure out how they like their room to look, how to arrange their books…don’t take that away from them.

Try not to worry too much…and don’t keep calling. You might even ask how often they would like to speak at the beginning.

Be prepared for random phone calls and then quick hang ups.  These will come mostly from girls who are walking alone across campus, and don’t like to “walk alone.”  Therefore, you become their walking buddy.  As soon as they reach their destination or bump into a friend, expect the “gotta go now.”  Take whatever you can get, though.

Send cards/notes/newspaper articles – via postal service.

And, finally, plan a fun activity for yourself the day after you send or drop your child off so that you don’t notice how quiet the house is.

*BTDT – been there, done that

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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