Volume 31 · Number 1 · Fall 2013
Parents: Parenting college students can take years off your life.
The shocker:It may even be worth it.
I’ve been parenting college students and writing about it for six years. That’s a photo of me there on the left, back when I started the column. Next to it is a photo of me now.
Although I’ve grown older, I don’t feel wiser. I feel more like Thomas Edison, when he said he hadn’t failed, he had just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.
All I’ve really learned is that parenting college students is about nuance. There’s a fine line between support and interference.
If it feels like we’re being drawn and quartered while we watch our student make mistakes — mistakes that we could easily have prevented by intervening — then we’ve probably found the sweet spot.
Maybe you’re wondering — isn’t there some fun to being the parents of college students? Of course!
Oh, wait, did you say fun or funny? Maybe fun isn’t exactly the right word, but it can be deeply gratifying to watch a teen bloom into adulthood, if viewed from a great enough distance, like perhaps from the surface of Mars. Back on Earth, it’s a little harder to stomach. Here are some of the challenges we encounter as the parents of college students:
They don’t call.
College students prefer to initiate phone calls or texts home. That way parents don’t interrupt them during busy or awkward times, such as the entire first term of freshman year. College students can become so absorbed with figuring out who they are apart from family and community that they don’t realize we at home would love an update. Text messages that start with “Send my…” do not count.
Plus side: Maybe we’ll miss their vegan phase.
They do call.
College students play parents like yo-yos: reel us out, dangle us on a string, leave us spinning at arm’s length, until suddenly, they need us right then, and with a flick of the wrist, they reel us back in. When the crisis ends, we are once again relegated to the sleeping yo-yo position.
Plus side: They still need us!
They have it good.
College students live with their peers. Set their own schedules. Eat piping hot, healthy meals prepared for them by others. Take interesting classes. Reside within footsteps of a fully equipped gym. The next time they have it this good, they’ll be living in a nursing home.
We feel envious. College students are expanding their horizons — intellectually, socially, sexually, spiritually and professionally. The sky’s the limit! Parents, on the other hand, have horizons so diminished from the demands of adulthood that we can fit them into a single carry-on item and stow them in the overhead bin.
Plus side: No envy during finals week.
They have it bad.
The demands of college can be overwhelming. Students may experience tremendous stress over grades, finances, relationships and the challenges of independent living. They might reside in a crowded dorm room with two other roommates. One of their roommates might arrive home drunk late on Friday night, throw up all over the floor, then depart early the next morning when his buddies hammer on the door to take him away for the weekend. Without cleaning up.
Poor students — the next time they have it this bad, they’ll be parents.
Plus side: These are the best years of their lives.
They’re in charge.
As college students learn to manage their own health, they do crazy things that will make for funny stories one day in the distant future when the whole family gathers around the holiday table. But not yet. It’s too soon.
“Hey, remember sophomore year when I went to the beach for the weekend to surf and I wiped out and the board hit my head and I stumbled to shore, bleeding, and I staggered along the sand until I happened to run into this guy who said he was a nurse, and he drove me to the hospital. Then I called you on Sunday night to tell you not to worry, that my stitches were healing fine and that I was almost over my concussion, and you said, ‘Wait, you were at the beach this weekend?’ Ha! Wasn’t that hilarious?”
Plus side: She survived.
They like to charge.
For all their bravado, most college students are still reliant on mom and dad for financial support. They know it, we know it, they know we know it, and they just can’t stand it. Especially when we tell them that charging a tropical getaway for spring break is not the sort of financial emergency we envisioned when we said OK to a credit card.
Plus side: Money is still a card we hold in our hand.
Even students who receive financial aid and work a part-time job will still need a new smartphone with a killer data plan to replace the one they lost last week at a party.
Plus side: That phone was more than three months old and obsolete anyway.
Their hair, their major, their political affiliation, their diet, their interests, their beliefs — in the search for identity, college students experiment. Of course we expect our children to experience personal growth while they’re away at school, but not the kind that causes them to return home and stomp all over our family values in their thrift store combat boots.
Plus side: Eventually, parents are able to look beyond the superficial changes and accept that the college accidentally swapped roommates in the dorms and sent the wrong kid home.
College students will skirt the truth in order to avoid a lecture. If they’ve done something dumb, they will be vague. They will omit certain facts. They will make Richard Nixon look like an amateur.
When parents eventually stumble across the real story, no one will be more surprised than our disingenuous college students. “What?! I won’t be graduating in four years? Why wasn’t I informed?”
Plus side: Knowing too little about our student’s life can be better than knowing too much.
They age us.
College students mature into educated adults, while we mature into stretch pants and reading glasses. As the years go by, we can enjoy the challenge of learning to maintain the proper balance in parenting.
Plus side: They fudge, we fudge.