My column in today’s Greenville News. Love on your kids when they’re in college!
Two of our sons began university classes last week; one a freshman, one a junior. After spending a wonderful Summer with them, Jan and I always find this a difficult time. It requires that we adjust to walking past empty rooms and accept the fact that they aren’t coming back home at the end of each day to scavenge food and tell us stories. Even their high-school junior sister misses them, although she is under the delusion that the house will be neater with brothers away. (Guess what, papa still lives here!)
Of course, we’re hardly alone. All over the state, nation and world, families send their daughters and sons off to be educated. And what a great thing! Broken parents everywhere have lost children to disease, accident, starvation or war and would love to simply have them alive, much less getting an education. I try to keep that in perspective when I feel sorry for myself.
However, as grand as college is, it’s a time of significant stress for our young people. Many are leaving home for the first time. This means great fun and adventure. But it also means a separation from those who have, for at least 18 years, been their constant supports and care-takers. It means leaving the comfort of the known for new places and new people. It exposes the kids, appropriately, to opinions that challenge their own. It introduces them to other kids from different backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles.
In addition, their sudden unsupervised state opens them up to all sorts of opportunities for bad habits and bad decisions. All of this added together can be very difficult. This is especially true in a time when, for a variety of reasons, some young people seem to be maturing later than in previous generations.
Perhaps this is why colleges are reporting more and more students struggling with depression, anxiety and substance abuse. University mental health clinics are always busy. And many kids end up dropping out or transferring to schools closer to home.
However, there’s one stressor we forget. When we send our kids to college we have high hopes and expectations for them. For years we’ve encouraged them, talked about college and even talked to our friends and family members about our kids’ academics. ‘Oh yeah, Joan here is going to Clemson and then med school; she’s going to be a surgeon! Aren’t you baby?’ (She nods her head nervously…) ‘Rick is planning to be an architect, right dear?’ Or a lawyer or an artist. We think that at 16, 17 (or even in their 20’s) they can plan their entire lives and it will all play out as scripted. That they’ll go to university, get that planned degree, go to professional school or grad school, get that awesome job and then we can tell everyone how great they did.
And yet, what if they don’t? What if they’re frightened? What if they’re tempted? What if they feel outcast? What if they get addicted? What if they get pregnant? Perhaps harder for parents (and kids) to accept, what if they aren’t ready, or just don’t enjoy the academic environment and find that they really just want a job and a family? What if, like all humans, they simply miss home and the places and people they love?
The thing is, we parents (and grands) must never let our children’s identities be completely tied to education or career. Because if is, and if it goes wrong, then the whole structure of their precious lives is shaken. I think this may be one of the biggest stressors of all. That is, their desperate fear of disappointing the ones who worked for them and encouraged them to move forward. It must be absolutely paralyzing.
Our children are valuable because they’re our children. That’s the most important and foundational truth they need to hear. Not because of their grades, scholarships, IQ’s, career goals, awards or anything else. And it needs to be followed by this truth: ‘My precious child, if you are unhappy, if school doesn’t work for you, if you change majors or change life-goals, it’s OK. You are not defined by any of it. I love you no matter what; you can always tell me the truth. And home is always here for you.’
So send them off to school with tears and joy! But always anchor their worth to the love of family, not the success or failure of their educational adventures.