To Help My Son Prepare For College, I Learned To Let Him Take The Lead

My son decided to prepare for college on his terms.
With just one month to go before my son left for college, I wanted to help him get ready to go.

I assumed I stood in good stead because I’d already been through it twice. With just one month to shop, organize, and pack for college, I was feeling the burn in my stomach every time I passed Bed, Bath & Beyond. My two older sons, without ever looking up from their phones, shared their collective wisdom: 

“Don’t let her buy the jumbo pack of highlighters. You’ll be lucky if you use one.” 

“Oh, and wait till she slides in the two-pack of stool softener! That was a big hit among my suitemates.” 

“Yeah, I ended up leaving half the stuff she bought me in my apartment for the next victim. How many push pins does one kid need?” 

Ignoring their jeers, I went to work with lists. I’d memorized the room layout from the online virtual tour, knew the move-in protocols, and was more than familiar with what was a must-have dorm room item and what could wait until Parents’ Weekend. But to no avail. Since I hadn’t attended college in 40-plus years, knew nothing about the needs, styles and wants of an iGeneration 18-year-old, was not conversant with all things electronic, and was, after all, Mom, my opinion was, in a word, irrelevant.

It began with the first packet of correspondence that came to the house from Georgetown. 

“Danny, did you register for a GoCard?” 

“Did you sign up for convocation?” 

“What about the survey for finding a roommate?” 

His response, in a tone that I’d never dare speak to my mother in, was: “How about this? Starting now, and going forward, please assume that any correspondence addressed to you from college has already been sent to me via email. Not only do you not have to tell me about it, there is no action that you need to take.” 

Taking the hit in stride, I softened. “Sure,” I agreed, picturing the first month of kindergarten when he wouldn’t let go of my pant leg at drop-off, “I just thought…” 

“How ’bout this?” he proposed. “Just don’t think.”

There I had it. I was not to think, or speak, or act, or react, for that matter. “Give him space; he’s probably nervous,” one friend suggested. “You’ll get it done; boys don’t bring half as much to college as girls do.” I was determined to keep my mouth shut, but found it impossible to stand still. 

Quietly and unobtrusively, I began to collect the things I knew he was bringing: the Georgetown sweatshirt my brother had gotten him, a tower fan, the four risers to lift the bed, an extra umbrella. Soon, small piles collected in the Florida room, along with empty bins and a large duffel that the family cat claimed as its residence.

Two weeks passed. 

“Fine,” he said one morning, “We can go shopping. But I get to choose where we go.” I didn’t dare admit that I’d had the Route 4/Route 17 course plotted out in my mind for weeks. “And, if we don’t find what we’re looking for, you are not to ask a salesperson where to find it.” A short pause, then more: “You cannot make suggestions for posters or family pictures or decide what kind of bedding I need.”

Admittedly, I’d planned to show him the five practically brand new comforters I’d had cleaned that were wrapped in plastic in the basement, but didn’t. “Anything else?” 

“Yeah,” he added, “I don’t care that YOU think I need boots and a raincoat. I’ve never worn a raincoat in my life and it snowed one inch in D.C. last winter.” Before he could change his mind, I grabbed my purse, and keys, and collected my reheated coffee from the microwave. “And one more thing,” he barked. “Don’t bring your stupid Hello Kitty coffee mug in the car. It doesn’t even fit in the cup holder.”

Since when was I such a complete and utter embarrassment to my children? Was I this intolerant with my parents? Contemplating this, I flashed back to middle school. As undeniably awkward as these years were for me, what made it worse was that my father was my principal. Walking through the halls on the first day, I prayed I wouldn’t see him, or have to acknowledge him. My friends, of course, knew, but they understood how self-conscious I was about it. 

“Miller is a common name,” they’d assured me. “No one will put two and two together.” I believed I’d made it through the first day unscathed until seventh period. Mr. Papoula, 6-foot 4-inches with lanky arms and a booming voice, was delivering our homework assignment when he was interrupted by the bell signifying the afternoon announcements. I tried to listen nonchalantly to the man’s voice speaking on the school’s PA system as though that man had no personal connection to me. But it was no use. 

With a wide grin on his face, Mr. Papoula towered over me. “How does it feel to have your father address the whole school over that contraption?” he asked, pointing to the plastic box on the wall. He’d blown my cover. Everyone was staring at me. Everyone knew. Was that how my son felt? Did he want to fade into the woodwork every time I reminded him of this brand new, scary, but exciting, completely uncertain next phase of his young life? I suppose we were one and the same, desperate to assert our independent selves in an effort to break free from the safe, but stifling hold of our parents.

Somehow we made it from store to store without incident. By day’s end, the trunk was filled with bags from a half dozen stores in Paramus. Checking the packing list off in my head, I knew we’d made some headway. For a day’s worth of shopping, it was more than a success. 

Whatever we were unable to find, he assured me he could order online. Many times throughout the day, if it seemed as though I was about to ask a question, he stifled me. A mother and son on a mission, we barely spoke. Delicate emotions were palpable. Any attempts at levity on my part were met with:

“Please don’t sing. Please don’t hum. Please don’t laugh.” By the time we arrived at Boston Market we were starving, sweaty and exhausted, I tried to muster a smile as we waited our turn in line. 

“Please don’t sigh. Please don’t roll your eyes. Please don’t stare. Please don’t cry.”

It was the end of new student orientation. We had unpacked, set up his room, met the roommate, enjoyed some local restaurants, and purchased our requisite Georgetown swag. The tension was high. I did not speak unless spoken to. I could feel things shifting, my role and his. My husband made small talk prepared for the torrent of emotion that he’d come to expect from me. But I was unusually calm. I’d become accustomed to keeping my mouth shut and surprisingly, there was very little to say.

Looking up at the clear blue sky, the Washington Monument in the distance, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. There was no question he was going to soar. I cleared my throat. He braced himself. “Sorry I made the past month so difficult for you,” I whispered. “I just wanted…I just needed…I just hoped…” Stopping me with the tightest bear hug, he leaned into me and said assuredly, “I know, and it’s OK, just please stop.”


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Deborah Breslow is a freelance writer and college-essay coach from Wyckoff. Her work appears in publications focusing on home, family, and medical advocacy. Visit her website at

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