Sending Your Baby to College? Here’s Some Advice

Sending Your Baby to College? Here’s Some Advice

As we come upon graduation season, many moms are about to send a child off to college. I’ve been teaching college students for over 20 years and for several years, I served as an administrator within an undergraduate college. I have some advice for parents about how they can help their college student succeed.

First, I strongly believe that the purpose of college is not merely to train for a career. The world is changing fast and the career skills they learn now will be obsolete in no time. Instead, college is an opportunity for young people to discover who they are and to learn and practice skills that will serve them for their entire lives, including effective communication, understanding and acceptance of differences, and critical thinking.

Let Them Go!

Parents must let go. You may want to rethink tracking your kid’s every move through Life 360. It will cause you to worry unnecessarily and at some point, becomes an invasion of their privacy and stunts their ability to grow up. Release them from the expectation of talking or texting every day. Don’t hound them when they don’t respond.

Beyond communication, parents today tend to handle more for their kids than our parents managed for us. Moms often contact their child’s high school teachers when there is a dispute or problem in a class; they make all appointments for their kids (even their 18-year-olds); they fill out all paperwork (even job applications!) and “help” their kid choose their courses (even for college). I too have been guilty of this: I prepared the documents for my daughter to get her driver’s permit. All she had to do was get in the car and smile for the picture. She didn’t even know the requirements or the cost.

We do them no favors with this behavior. There are times and situations when parents must get involved, but young people must learn how to handle routine administrative processes and how to manage conflicts with teachers, supervisors, and the many bureaucracies in our lives. They need to know what stuff costs!

As an administrator, I routinely got calls from parents that started like this, “I never thought I would be a parent who would call the university on my child’s behalf, but [insert reason why their child’s situation is unique, severe, etc.].” If you find yourself thinking this, you might ask yourself whether your student really should be advocating on their own behalf. I promise, if your son or daughter can get into a university, they can manage a roommate problem or a missing graduation requirement. Honestly, it’s empowering for them to figure this stuff out and manage without you!

Let Them Mess Up

Sometimes as parents we can see the mistake a mile away. Your child isn’t managing their time properly and will suffer by being more stressed than they should be, or by getting a lower grade than they could. Your son stays up too late and routinely sleeps through his alarm and is late for school or work. Your daughter has become friends with people you just know are going to let her down or get her in trouble. This list is endless.

When they’re little, we can force them to put down the devices, go to bed, and spend time with the people we choose. We shouldn’t try to do this when they’re old enough to vote! Let them make mistakes. Let them figure it out on their own. Let them – yikes – get their heart broken.

College is the perfect time to make these mistakes. For the most part, for the average mistakes college students make, the stakes are not extremely high (notable exceptions include health and safety issues). Getting a C or D — even an F — in a course will not matter in life and no, it will not keep them out of law school. If that experience helps them learn the importance of managing their time, showing up to class, and/or asking for help before it’s too late, then it’s worthwhile. At most universities, the penalties for first-time offenses of underage drinking or even cheating are not that serious. They pick the wrong roommate or choose to date a jerk? Provided there aren’t safety concerns, these are rights of passage for most people. They learn valuable lessons about communication, conflict resolution, and their own values. Yes, making these mistakes creates/exacerbates anxiety – that’s normal. They must learn how to take responsibility and manage stress because, in the words of my dad, “Life is no bed of roses.”

The key is that they learn the lesson from the mistake. When parents intervene – either with their child directly by trying to prevent it or with the university to fix it – it robs students of taking responsibility and learning the lesson.

Encourage Them to Branch Out

One of the changes I’ve seen over the last 20 years is that students are more concerned today that every class, every experience “count.” They’re reluctant to take classes that aren’t required. They want to get an internship, or take on a research experience, or become a campus leader because these things look good on a resume, rather than because of the intrinsic value of the experience.

I understand the impulse. College is ungodly expensive, and the idea of taking classes in horseback riding, ancient civilizations, or glass blowing seems like a luxury when they could be taking courses that you perceive will help them with their future careers. Why should they spend their time on the quidditch team when they could find an internship? Why volunteer their time with a campus club that doesn’t widen their network for jobs?

There are so many reasons why branching out is critical to a college experience, but I will say only this: None of us know the paths our children’s lives will take. And, after college, they are never going to have such an easy time finding ways to expand their minds. Parents should encourage their kids to do something every semester that is out of the ordinary, whether it’s attending a lecture about something they know nothing about, joining a club related to something new, or taking a class in a new field that isn’t required to graduate. They may just discover who they are and what they love!

J. Celeste Lay
J. Celeste Lay was born in New Orleans but moved around as a kid until finally growing up in Kentucky. After college and grad school, she returned to New Orleans in 2004 to become a professor at Tulane, where she teaches and researches U.S. politics and policy. Celeste and her New Jersey-born husband have two daughters, Lucy and Kimberly. She is delighted to be long past the baby and toddler stage with her kids and can genuinely say that parenting has gotten more fun every year. As the kids develop their own unique identities and personalities, her parenting has become less about meeting basic needs and more about learning who they are and how she can be helpful in ensuring they become kind, strong, independent women. In her free time, Celeste can be found at her kids’ dance competitions, but she also enjoys reality competition shows, scrapbooking, and travel.

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