Sending a child off to college goes against every fundamental principle we have likely used to guide our parenting thus far.
I used the word child because their brains are still forming. For that matter, most days, I feel like my brain is still forming.
Nobody teaches us how to be a good parent; it’s trial by fire and sometimes we just get lucky.
This person who you have nurtured and loved 24/7 for the past 18 years is now going to live under a different roof with his or her own rules. Your family is experiencing a big change.
If I have one piece of functional wisdom, it is to set things up so that everyone gets what they need during the transition.
When my son left for Carolina, I needed to know he was safe at night. So, I asked and he agreed that for the first two weeks he would call me when he was back in his dorm room with the door locked. This would give my body permission to sleep. Yes, he could have lied, but we don’t have that kind of relationship.
I also asked if we could set up a routine that would involve setting up some regular call times, just to hear his voice and stay in touch. In return, I agreed not to be quite so hands-on and feet-on, as I had been while he was living in our house.
The change is drastic for you and for them.
I highly recommend keepin’ it real so that it’s as smooth as possible. There are going to be hiccups on both ends, but why not ask for what you need to feel as whole as you can when the universe has just ripped your heart out of your chest? (Too much?)
Decide if mornings or evenings work better based on schedules and give that a try. My son called often, and sometimes it was a quick hello between classes but it scratched the itch just the same.
Everyone in the family will react differently to the new dynamic, so keep your eyes and your ears open for anyone who seems off. Listen for the things that they are saying, but hear what they might not be saying too. Keep the lines of communication open enough that to avert a spiral downward before they hit the absolute bottom of the drain.
Here is my real-world, must-read parenting guide: “Sending your Child off to College 101.”
1. It doesn’t matter if you talk openly about sex or not, send your child off to college with condoms.
Boy or girl—it does not matter. Buy scented, ribbed, colored, triple berry, or extra strength, but whatever you do, get the jumbo pack and hold your ground. You might be embarrassed or your child might be, so if that’s the case, just tuck them into a duffle bag and know that at least that part of life has been addressed.
To pretend that they would never need one or that they would have the maturity to think ahead of time is silly. This is the first and most important item on your list.
When the American Academy of Pediatrics is seeing an increase in sexually transmitted diseases in young adults, it is your job to protect your child and whoever he or she chooses to partner up with, casually or regularly. This is a time of exploration in their lives and it is normal for them to try to understand who they are.
Your daughter may be on birth control pills for her clear complexion, but please, explain why her partner absolutely must wear a condom anytime she does anything with anyone. This rule applies to that nice Jewish boy she met at the fraternity party whose aunt went to college with your cousin Lisa, and that adorable blond who happens to be the punter for the Fighting Illini. The rule includes, but is not limited to, what my mother referred to as, “putting your mouth on it.”
It’s a fashion accessory, a must-have for the season. It’s like wearing a good pair of black boots, ladies. We cannot live without them. Tuck one into the zipper pouch of your purse, girls. You may never, ever use it, but in the heat of the moment, you may wish you had one.
Do I really need to elaborate on why it’s important to protect them from certain cancers and sexually transmitted diseases? I didn’t think so.
2. Determine whether you want durable Power of Attorney for your 18-year-old.
It’s hard to believe, but if your child is 18 years old, you do not have any legal right to speak to their doctor—whether it’s in an emergency room or in a university clinic.
The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) prohibits a doctor from speaking with you about your child’s health.
If you feel that there are decisions you want to be a part of, should your son or daughter become sick at school, know what you can do to secure those rights. I remember when my son sprained his ankle his sophomore year. The infirmary called me and said they had my son. They could not tell me what happened to him because he was over 18. I was frantic imagining all of the most horrible things that could have put him in the university hospital—a sprained ankle was a welcome diagnosis.
Nonetheless, the baby you gave birth to has the right to privacy, and being his mom will get you absolutely nowhere.
3. Send a first aid kit that looks like your medicine cabinet at home.
“Mom, what do I take when my throat starts to itch? You know, the whats-its in that blue bottle?”
I found a big red first aid tin. It even had the white cross on it like the Red Cross. I loaded that up with everything from elderberry syrup to pimple drying lotion. It had extra toothbrushes and I don’t even want to know why they might be needed. It had vitamins, zinc, colloidal silver, and charcoal for emergencies. I went mainstream as well with Advil, Gas X, and Benadryl. Oh, and sunscreen in various tubes and sprays.
It became my children’s claim to fame and whenever anyone in the suite needed something from a Band-Aid to Epsom salts, they knew who to call. It was my way of taking care of my kids even when they were no longer close enough to do it in person. It was a feel-good that often cured what ailed my children.
4. Set a budget for them before they leave.
Things are much less heated and sensitive at home in a familiar place to discuss money.
If your child has never managed their finances, this will be an enormous responsibility. If there is some way to monitor spending, as a support to them mastering the process, take it. I cosigned my son’s bank account and that allowed me access and the ability to add cash when necessary. It made the handing over of power a seamless one, with a few minor exceptions that lay squarely on both of our parts.
You are entering uncharted territory.
5. Buy extra boxers, underwear, socks, and bras.
Buy extras of everything. Things disappear, reappear, and end up in compromising places. The laundry room eats up underwear and Room 102 may end up with Room 101’s skivvies. It happens. I won’t explain where else they might end up, but sh*t happens in college. Most freshmen don’t take a car to school, so getting to Target becomes a bit more challenging.
Why not plan ahead for the inevitable? Or, be prepared to pay for Uber runs on the regular.
6. Give them cleaning supplies, paper towels, and extra Kleenex.
When you get to school, stock up on paper towels, toilet paper, and buy a dust buster—get a cart full of cleaning supplies. They may never get used, but they will definitely not be on their list.
7. Teach them how to make up their bed if they haven’t.
I am not being silly. Plenty of teens have not had this responsibility and will not take the initiative to figure it out for the first time with everything else new on their calendar.
8. Organization is a skill college students need to master.
Talk through when they might set up a weekly cleaning with their roommate just to keep their environment tidy. Help them think through a laundry schedule that might be midday or late-night hoping to find the off hours.
Clutter creates corners of confusion. Hang hooks, create piles, and perhaps template out their closet space.
Every year when we moved my son in, we walked his entire schedule with him. This gave him a sense of how long it would take to get from one class to the next. This helped him understand if he had time to chit chat, or if he needed to run a 5K to get there. It also provided him with an expectation so he wasn’t unpleasantly surprised. The registrar doesn’t organize their schedules by distance, but rather by interest so a few of his classes were rather challenging to get to on time.
We went to the book store with him his freshman year and helped him get his textbooks sorted out. These are all new and can be anxiety-producing or for some kids, it may be delightful and liberating #knowyourkid.
9. Talk about consent and tell them to never pick up a drink once they have put it down.
I sent a young man off to school. While most people have concern for young women, I knew that all my son had to do was be accused of something and his life would change forever. We talked about no meaning no. We discussed that people who are impaired cannot give consent, and we discussed always having a buddy around. Obviously, if things get intimate, they will not be in a group.
Safety is paramount and there are simple guidelines to keep girls and boys safe. Some children go off to college and have never had alcohol. They are likely to need friends to help them find their way. Encourage your child to be the friend they want to have.
Having your child put down his or her drink means they are saying goodbye to it. I encouraged my daughter to make a general rule that if she didn’t see someone pour it she wasn’t going to drink it.
10. Fake IDs are for real.
We didn’t talk about this and we got lucky that nobody ever got arrested or worse.
When I was younger, you borrowed someone’s driver’s license to get into a bar. You might be blonde and the license is a redhead. Nobody really paid all that much attention. Now, it’s a much bigger deal.
I am not going to conduct a seminar on how to buy your child a fake ID. Unbeknownst to me, both my kids had them already—and they weren’t even big partiers in high school. They will learn the lay of the land quickly.
If they get caught using one, consequences can be as serious as losing your passport. This is no joke. I never slept better than the night my daughter turned 21 and both of my children were legal.
11. Never walk alone at night.
When my son left for college, I reminded him about being a gentleman. Never let a girl walk home alone, but what people forget is that a young man walking alone is every bit a target. If someone has a weapon, it doesn’t matter who his or her target is.
Most universities have late-night ride services. I told my son that he could take a taxi if necessary. I could not bear to think about having him be a victim because he was trying to be a gentleman. Sometimes, the logistics of the evening get turned around, or plans change.
In general, however, I suggest that they are clear about how they are getting home. Maybe friends meet up somewhere and go back to the dorm together. After a night of drinking, nobody is thinking with a clear head. They were clearly instructed never to get into a car with anyone who’s been drinking.
Most kids ask, “You okay to drive?” And the answer is almost always yes. This is when bad things happen to good people. My son never took his car out on the weekends if he was going out. This felt like a good idea and he never had an incident.
12. All girls and boys should have keychains with an alarm.
I sent a slew of them for my children and all of their friends. I’m not sure this item makes it onto any official “Back to School” shopping list, but it’s a college must-have. It’s as much for you as it is for them. It’s one of those items that helps you sleep at night, trust me, and a small price to pay for peace of mind.
13. Be a safe place to fall when they fail and their biggest cheerleader. They still need you to be there.
Things have changed dramatically since you and I went to school. Kids are more sophisticated. Social media is potentially lethal—life has layers and layers of temptation. College will offer them more than their fair share of complex issues to navigate. It is also a time in their life when they will find their way through trial and error. This is part of normal development. You can’t prevent them from skinning their knee or falling on their ass.
Their personal growth will be obvious because they are gone for extended periods of time. While they are away from you they will choose friends; some will be a good influence and others you will pray they tire of quickly.
They will date and perhaps fall in love. Some relationships will provide solace and security and others will be filled with emotional disaster. This process is not always as smooth as we would hope.
Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. Our job is to help them steer the boat, but never get in and drive for them. It is their time to figure it out.
Try to resist making decisions for them that will make life easier every time they find themselves in the hot seat. Listen more than you talk and ask lots of questions, rather than giving them all of the answers. Your answers might be wrong for them.
Do everything you know to prepare them—and then have a whole lotta faith.
College is the time of their lives, not yours. We did our best and it’s up to them to do the rest—remember that. They will always consider us home.