A Meditation on Children Going Off to College



Every August, I think I’m prepared for it.  After all, the house has been a mess all summer with their cartons full of school books, their various computers and printers,  and their mini-fridges.  But then, every August, I have to face the reality that my older children are no longer mine, come the 25th of August,  and I get to turn back into a non-speaking, uninvolved hose that feeds money to them on a weekly/monthly basis, for their latest bookstore bill, parking sticker,  or Art History field trip to the great museums of New York.  I no longer know what they’re doing on Saturday night (thank God!).  Unless they happen to call me up and tell me, I don’t know if they are happy or sad or getting sick or anything.  I know of people who didn’t even realize that their son/daughter had never attended a single class at their college of choice until they went to Parents’ Weekend!  Parents don’t get to be involved in any structured way in the whole process of choosing what classes they take (unless you count paying for those classes).  I am happy to say that I have no role in their choice of clothing! But I also don’t get to ask questions about most subjects without their permission, and  I don’t get a copy of their grades, unless they choose to share them with me. The only thing I have reasonable access to is the tuition bill. There’s a surprise!

I’m not even supposed to look very interested in what they are up to, or I might be accused of being that worst-of-all-bad-things:  a “helicopter parent.”

So, here’s the disconnect:  you’re supposed to go for 18 years, knowing everything about your children and being responsible–when push comes to shove–for their manners, their study habits, their spending habits, their eating habits, and even their bad living habits–that is, if those happen to 1) cause them to do community service or 2) land them in jail.  How is a parent supposed to artificially, overnight,  stop being a parent and become a casual bystander in their child’s life?

I say the whole system stinks!

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m all for students’ rights and fairness and privac.  But I have a little trouble with sending kids–and I mean kids–merrily off to college, with nothing more than the hope that they’ll be good at handling all that new-found freedom and independence.  I guess we really shouldn’t worry, since we know how well 18- and 19-year-olds perform in general with a lot of freedom and lack of rules!  What bothers me, I suppose,  is that we’ve gotten rid of all the support systems at the other end.  There are no “dorm mothers,” or parietal hours, or, as far as I can tell,  even very effective resident advisors.  Resident advisors seem to be there just to politely urge people to reduce the noise level that’s coming out of the room where all the illegal drinking/smoking/whatever is happening.   There’s nothing in colleges now that holds the student’s hand a bit through the transition from having one to two sets of eyes watching their every move to a state of complete absence of supervision (other than what their professors give them during classroom or advising hours).  I  miss those support systems.  I know I’m from another planet, but I loved having a “dorm mother” that I could go and talk to when I was homesick  or stressed.  I liked knowing that someone at the college cared if I lived or died.

I wouldn’t want to go completely back to the way things were in the dark ages when I was in school, but I think we’ve gone too far the other way.  We don’t have to have little teas with white gloves, but, please, someone at least give a damn if students adjust to college life with their bodies and souls intact.  I know if we could find a happy medium, parents would feel a lot better about shelling out thousands upon thousands of dollars each year for that education.

5 thoughts on “A Meditation on Children Going Off to College

  1. It doesn’t ever get any easier, does it? Let me know how things go for her. I have one that’s basically 20 minutes away, but she might as well be on the moon! Thanks, Marsha, for this post!

  2. Thanks for this, BJ! I’m really feeling this tug at my heartstrings and you’ve captured the reason for the unease – I hadn’t really put it all together. Our only child/daughter is at a state school in NC – one of the smaller ones, but still…her soph year is almost more stressful than last year – she had a hometown honey and was home almost every weekend! That’s no longer the case, and so she’s living “la vida loca” an hour and a half away – which is as it should be, but I’m noticing she’s not handling things so well – the balance of playing and working! Keeping in touch daily – we are oh so close and texting is my new best skill! I look forward to seeing more on this – thanks, girl! I wonder if private colleges are doing better in this regard??

  3. Hey Miss Jane,
    Know that feeling of letting go well, now – with Max off at school (he’s been in NYC cooking for the past 4 months–on his “externship” from the CIA). But I had a different college experience – perhaps the few years btw us marked a shift in supervision at colleges, or perhaps it was because I went to art school (but my brief semester at a liberal arts didn’t seem much “safer”). When I look back on my experience now – I cringe at the idea that my kids will have as much freedom. I don’t know how we put the genie back in the bottle, though….but I know I would have done much better if I’d had some kind of transitional experience before being set loose upon the world…

  4. Hi Jane,
    My daughter is turning 30 soon, but I still remember that empty nest pain. She became a resident assistant and later a hall director,and I know she did provide support and help to kids struggling or at least referred them to where they could get some help. I think some colleges do better with that than others. Overall, I think there seems to be more emphasis on helping kids transition than in the dark ages when our generation went to college. I know at UT, they will even place kids together in the residence halls by different preferences–such as by major or by hometown.
    Take care,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *