Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Confident College-Bound Kid And The Worried Parent

In just a day and a half, I will be getting on a plane with my son to drop him off at college some 1300 miles away, for a six-week summer program he must complete in order to attend the university in the fall. While I had every faith that I had prepared him for the world outside his comfortable bubble, some things have popped up making me think otherwise.

I have always prided myself on not being an overly suffocating parent. I have allowed my kids to dabble in danger in order to learn. For example, when they were little, I let them run on the concrete and get boo-boos so they would know to move it to the grass next time. I allowed them to experience a slight sunburn (because they rarely listen to me when I nag and nag about putting on sunscreen) so they would remember that it hurts when they don't apply sunscreen, and I have let them eat junk food all day knowing they would  pay the consequences later when their stomach began to turn on them. I would never allow them to be severely harmed, that would be child abuse. But I do allow just enough leeway for them to be warned from their own poor decisions. It's the way we learn best; trial and error. Just like the day I told my son (when he was around five or six), not to touch the cactus because, even though it looks like soft hairs, it will hurt you. Well, of course, he just had to touch it and, of course, he had about twenty tiny needles stuck in his fingers. Did he ever touch another cactus again? Nope! He learned!

There are other things I have tried to let my children learn the hard way, because, sometimes, no amount of explaining or nagging will change a child's behavior. Sometimes, kids have to experience failure in order to learn how the world works, like letting them fail a test because they thought it was more important to play video games than to study, or missing an important event because they didn't complete homework assignments. As much as I dislike watching my children struggle or fail, there really is no better teacher.

So, now I bring you back to my son, who is leaving for college. I have taught him how to cook basic meals and wash his laundry (although I have given up on him folding it!) along with a list of other life survival skills. Ha! I thought - he's going to be sooo ready when he moves away.

But then, while he was filling out his graduation thank you cards (his handwriting looks worse than a second graders - so for those who receive them, I'm sorry!), he asked me this: "Mom, do I need to put a postage stamp on the cards I mail inside California?" WHAT?! Did he really just ask me that question? How could it be, at 18, he doesn't know if he needs a postage stamp? And then, I wondered... what the hell else doesn't he know?

I did a little research. I googled the question: what your child should know before going to college, and there were multiple pages of advice. I was really more curious about life skills, but there were also practical tips that kids should follow while they are at school as well. I have taken down some of the important findings just in case you are floating in the same boat as me.

1. Know how to do laundry: wash, dry and iron.

2. Know how to make at least basic meals. Make sure they know how to turn on a stove/oven and that it's important to clean up after themselves - seriously, some kids just don't know this!

3. Know how to manage money. Have them create a spending budget and show them how to balance a checkbook or keep track of their debit card online. Have them refrain from getting a credit card until they fully understand how to manage their money.

4. If they are taking their car, know how to do general maintenance and what the warning lights mean. They should also know how to change a tire and who to contact in case of an accident or a breakdown.

5. Know how to use public transportation. Make sure they are aware of what is available at school.

6. Know how to keep their room tidy. No one wants a messy roommate and keeping items put away makes finding them easier.

7. Know how to address professors and how to be courteous to all school employees.

8. Know how to take care of themselves if they are sick and know when it's time to seek medical attention.

9. Understand how college loans will affect them and if they are lucky to have a scholarship, have them take the scholarship seriously. It would suck if they lost it due to not knowing what is expected of them.

10. Know that their professors are not their parents.

11. Get up when the alarm goes off.

12. ALWAYS go to class.

13. Know how to manage stress.

14. Know how to balance school work with their social life. Without us nagging at them, they may struggle with this. It's easy to get caught up in the social aspect of college and neglect their studies.

15. Know how to keep themselves and their valuables safe.

16. Try new things, make new friends.

17. Go to as many networking events as possible - make connections.

18. Invest in your professors: get to know them on a personal level by dropping by during office hours for help or advice. This relationship can help when in need of recommendation letters.

19. Get an internship.

20. Learn how to write. Not just write, but write well.

21. Develop skills that are hard to get outside the university.

22. Learn more than just your major - expand your knowledge beyond your degree.

23. Stand strong in your morals and values.

24. Don't put anything on the internet that could harm your employment or social life. If you don't want your mom, significant other or employer to see it, then don't post it!

25. Put your napkin in your lap and, if it's a cloth napkin, don't blow your nose in it! (My husband did that at a fancy restaurant when we were dating and, at that point, I was wondering if he was raised by a pack of wolves!)

26. And not one of the lists I read said anything about how to use postage stamps! So, even though most correspondence is done via the internet these days, make sure they know how snail mail works!

27. (An add from a reader!) "Know when and how to ask for help." This applies to everything from school work, to physical and mental health, to financial situations. Kind of goes along with being willing to admit you don't necessarily know everything, which is probably difficult for invincible 18 year olds...

I was really hoping someone would give me a list of all the life skills kids should know that I take for granted as common knowledge, but in my search, I didn't find that magical list. I suppose, many of the things will be learned as he goes along, the way many of us did. And, there's always Google!

For all of those sending a child off to college this fall, I wish for you, a sense of peace among the chaos of doubt in your head. Did I do enough? Are they ready to go it alone? Can I let go? If you have gotten this far, then the answer is "yes". Confidence breeds confidence, and by showing them that you feel they are ready will help them feel they can take this next step toward independence. It's a tough world out there, but it's meant to be discovered. Allowing your child the freedom to discover is one of the biggest gifts you can give him/her. And, if they find they are not quite ready once they get there, they can always come home (although I have big plans for my son's room when he leaves - so that may not work out - just kidding!).

If you have additional advice, please share it! I, as well as the readers, could use it!


  1. I think a big miss on this list is the following: "Know when and how to ask for help." This applies to everything from school work, to physical and mental health, to financial situations. Kind of goes along with being willing to admit you don't necessarily know everything, which is probably difficult for invincible 18 year olds...

    1. Absolutely! How could I have missed that one! Thanks for the add Bryan!

  2. i have always admired and agreed with your philosophy of letting kids learn through natural consequences and minor failings. I have learned this is one of the greatest parenting challenges - to resist the natural instinctive urge to save or shield our kids, knowing in doing so at every turn we deprive them of learning the skills needed to survive outside of the nest. Grea post!

  3. Fabulous post, Jan. Wow, you've had to do this topic about eight weeks before I do, I'm not looking forward to it. Ellie told me about the stamp incident this morning... lol! She may have know that, but John can out-cook her any day.