When I was pregnant with our first child, I joined the gigantic army of other moms-to-be who studied What to Expect When You’re Expecting throughout those nine scary/happy months. Fast forward 18 years and, oh, what I would have given for a What to Expect When You’re Dropping That Baby at the Freshman Dorm book? Fortunately for moms (and dads) with kids on the cusp of departure, Kelly Radi has written Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage.
In fact, in her introduction to the book, she writes
Out to Sea is my version of What to Expect for parents as their children enter the first year of college. It is not intended for students but for you – the parents who love them and want to help them thrive.
A mother of two daughters, one of whom is in college and the other a high school senior, Radi combines first hand experience with insight gleaned from the countless interviews she conducted with school administrators, health care professionals, other parents, and, most importantly, college students themselves. In Out to Sea, she takes us by the hand to help us manage both the practical and emotional aspects of helping our kids leave home for college. We were lucky to be able to interview Radi and our Q&A follows:
GF: Leaving our kids at college is painful, and that pain sometime endures for a longer time than we were expecting. Parents ask us all the time why it hurts and how long it takes to get past it. What was it like when you dropped your daughter off and what advice do you offer in the book to help other parents?
KR: The day we dropped our firstborn off at school was filled with mixed emotions. Of course, I was excited for her to begin this new adventure. But my heart ached with the understanding that life as we knew it would never be the same. My intuition told me that the girl we were dropping off would not be the same one who returned home for the holidays.
Questions flooded me in waves. Would she be safe? How could I protect her with 321 miles between us? Would she make nice friends? Would she advocate for herself if she struggled? Would she know not to eat the fruit floating in the punch? Heaven forbid, if the situation came up, would she practice safe sex? Would she remember to call me—not about the sex, but just to check in once in a while?
Why is it so difficult to let them go? After eighteen years of pouring our hearts into raising these young humans, how do we just plop them down on campus, walk away, and expect them to survive? I think the bigger question lurking in many parents’ minds is: How will I survive?
This question and these emotions are the very reasons I wrote Out to Sea. Launching our “babies” is hard! Out to Sea is designed to help parents survive (and thrive) as they begin this voyage with best practices and advice from experts along with real-life stories from parents who’ve already been-there, done-that. While the book is brimming with practical advice on a myriad of college-related topics, here are 4 concepts I found useful in navigating the emotional parts of this voyage.
1. Remember this is college—not high school.
Our roles and responsibilities as parents change as they prepare to launch.
2. Parenting is not one-size-fits-all.
Each student and each family situation is unique, with different parenting philosophies and different needs. Respect the differences.
3. Practice what you preach.
We must model emotionally healthy behaviors for our children. As the old saying goes, if your child has a tantrum, don’t have one of your own.
4. Keep your eye on the goal.
Don’t we all want healthy, happy adults who can take care of themselves in the real world? Make choices that will empower your child to achieve this.
GF: Out to Sea is a fantastic guide for parents of kids have already signed their college acceptance letters and are ready to plan for freshman orientation and move-in day. But what can you say to parents of seniors who might still be anxiously waiting for their kids to finish their college essays, or parents of juniors who are just beginning to gear up for the college process?
KR: My advice, as simple as it sounds, is to relax. I know it’s a very stressful time with all the uncertainty and fear of the unknown. The kids have enough anxiety of their own. They don’t need us freaking out, too. Remember #3 above? You have an opportunity here to demonstrate emotionally healthy behaviors. Instead of obsessing, try to take a mentorship approach. Now is the time to empower your child. They’re on the cusp of adulthood and need to learn to navigate these uncharted waters. Please understand I’m not telling you to be completely hands-off, but certainly give your child a chance to be in the driver’s seat during this process.
Just how does one “mentor” instead of “parent”? A mentor listens first and then offers advice. A mentor promotes personal responsibility. A mentor allows others to learn, grow and problem-solve. For example, instead of dictating which colleges your child “should” consider and scheduling a series of campus visits on his or her behalf, ask your child to make a spreadsheet comparing his or her top 5-10 college choices, listing application deadlines, details and dates of potential visits. Then sit down together to discuss these schools. You might be amazed at what your child is capable of when you step back, talk less and listen more.
GF: You provide an extensive checklist in “Pack This, Not That” of what to students should bring to college. Did you ace dorm shopping the first time through with your own daughter or did this chapter culminate from mistakes you made?
Did we make mistakes? You bet we did! I think the biggest mistake many folks make is to pack too much. Dorm rooms are more likely to resemble Gilligan’s quarters on the S.S. Minnow than the ballroom of the Titanic. Remember how small the dorm room was when you toured it? Rest assured—it didn’t grow. Keep this in mind as you pack, and remind your child of it before you decide to rent a U-Haul to bring her stuff to school.
Another insider tip: Read carefully through the residence hall regulations prior to packing. I was surprised to see hot pots, coffee makers, and toasters on the “do not pack” list when our daughter received her initial housing packet. As a coed of the ’80s, I have fond memories of burning Kraft Mac & Cheese to a crisp in my orange hot-pot. But fire codes in several states now prohibit the use of anything with an exposed heating element in residence halls. They may also restrict string lights and extension cords, depending on the state regulations. It’s worth your time to read the fine print.
Lastly, have your student discuss larger items (futon, fridge, TV) with roommates ahead of time so you don’t lug a futon up four flights of stairs only to find out the roommate already has one there. That old adage of what goes up must come down is true!
GF: In a very aptly titled chapter, “Tsumani,” you write about all those things that keep parents up at night – safety, sexual behavior, mental and physical health. In conducting your research, what surprised you most about how today’s college students are managing their lives?
KR: During the course of writing Out to Sea, I spent many hours on college campuses, immersing myself in the current college culture. Yes, I was the old lady wearing mom jeans in the student union. I had the pleasure of meeting passionate people from all aspects of university life. From California to New Jersey, I interviewed professors and provosts, housing administrators and financial aid workers, counselors and safety officers. In addition, I had the privilege of talking with students— lots of students! For the most part, I was surprised and delighted by these bright, inspired young adults. I can tell you, the next generation is articulate and sincere with strong ideals and even stronger opinions.
However, these students are also under extreme pressure to perform. They worry about grades and money and choosing a major. Some are struggling to fit in, to find themselves. Many understand college is a huge financial burden on their families and worry about disappointing their parents. Others are dealing with anxiety and mental health issues.
And unfortunately, these same bright students often turn to substance abuse to cope. The biggest issue, hands down, on college campuses today is alcohol. Every single administrator I met listed alcohol as the number one problem. Every. Single. One.
Then there are drugs. While recreational drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and Ecstasy are still problems, I was surprised to learn of the rampant abuse of prescription drugs on campuses. Obtaining stimulants (like ADHD drug Adderall) from friends with legitimate prescriptions seems less dangerous and illegal than buying recreational drugs on the street. As one student told me, “It’s not something that I worry about too much, because everybody’s doing it.”
My advice to parents after conducing my research? Please make time to talk with your children about the realities of substance abuse. And do address prescription drugs. Smart kids who’ve never given their parents a reason to worry are getting caught up in substance abuse during their college years. Some mistakes are life lessons. Other mistakes are life threatening. As mentors, it’s our job to support them and guide them in the basics of safety, protection, and self-care. That means having ongoing conversations with our students about this heavy stuff before, during, and after they launch.
GF: What do your daughters think of the book? Did you give them veto power?
While I do share several personal stories, I consciously tried to not exploit or purposely embarrass my girls. As a mom, I likely embarrass them every day, so maybe they’re just used to it! They did have veto power and our oldest daughter was my first draft reader, so it all had to pass her careful eye.
They’re both proud of the fact that their mom wrote and published a book, which in itself makes all of the long hours and hard work worth it! As for content, I asked them how they felt about our family stories being “out there.” Karen, our youngest, most private, and a high school senior, is glad I wrote it before she started the college selection process. She thinks it’s making me more relaxed about her college search and pending launch. (Don’t think for a moment that it won’t tear my heart into tiny little pieces to see her go!)
Brooke, our oldest and now in her third year of college, was very close to the process, often my first phone call for clarification or questions. I asked her, specifically, how she felt about being exposed in the book as I share a lot of her college experiences, including the very emotional letter I left on her pillow on move-in day. “There’s no doubt it’s authentic,” she responded. “It’s cool, but still so bizarre to see the personal letter my mom wrote for me published in the last chapter for the world to see.”
Kelly Radi is a Grown & Flown mom of two daughters–who went from diapers to diplomas in a nano-second! Kelly’s living her dream as an author and public speaker, empowering parents as they prepare to launch their children. Her book is Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and read more of her parenting wisdom at outtoseaparentsguide.com.