Welcome to Day 2 of the series of interviews with Vicki Caruana, mom, college educator, and author of the new book, The Joy of Letting. (Click here for Day 1.)
Today we explore how a parent’s approach to letting go can help–or hinder–their child’s college success.
Sending a child off to college is no small feat. Our oldest son, Seth, started at community college and then transferred to CSU in Fort Collins, living in the dorms, then back home for the summer, then moving into an apartment. On the SAME DAY his younger brother and I loaded the van with his stuff to drive him to his first apartment, my husband helped our middle son, Stephen, load up the car to head to Fort Lewis College in Durango.
That week there was a lot of teasing mom as my young men caught me crying and wrapped a strong arm around my shoulder while I said repeatedly, “It’s okay for me to be sad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you to go. You are doing exactly the right thing!”
I did receive validation when my dry-eyed husband admitted that he cried a lot of the six-hour drive home after dropping Stephen off!
My three young men
Somehow we survived. Last spring Seth graduated with his Bachelor of Science in Sports Medicine, and this spring Stephen graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in Adventure Education.
I gotta admit, though, that I find the constant transitions of college exhausting. You drop them off (or watch them drive away) and then cry until you can dry your tears. Just when you get used to not cooking for the masses and the house staying clean–just when the quiet grows less invasive, winter break is around the corner. You are wild with excitement. Cook up a storm. Welcome your children home. Only to have them leave and the house be too quiet again in January.
This cycle continues for years. *sigh*
Jerry and I have had exactly two weeks of no one but us living here in our most recent transition, but even now our youngest is considering moving back home in a few months to save money while he goes to college. Honestly? I love my son and will adore having him here if that is what he chooses, but my heart is tired of the revolving doors of the empty nest process. The transitions are easier than they were the first time, but it still feels like someone is playing tennis with my heart. I think I’m actually (finally) looking forward to the doors opening only when they want to come for a visit.
So, Vicki, as an assistant professor you observe students whose parents’ approach to the letting go process deeply affects the student’s college success. Could you share some positive approaches that help our children succeed in this difficult transition?
Teaching at the college level, I see first-hand how parents approach letting go of their newly minted adult children. I realize that not every 18 or 19 year old is at the same level of maturity when they arrive on campus, so possibly a parent’s approach to letting them go may match that level of maturity. But I’ve also seen students struggle to pry their parents’ hands off of their new found independence. I’ve also seen students crying in the hallway over being incredibly homesick. Like the story I told about Nikki in my book, it’s important that we remember that our presence should not be required in order for (1) our kids’ well-being, and (2) our own well-being. I admit that I desperately miss our now grown sons. I also admit that I really wish they’d move to NY so we could all be together again. I know my mom wished the same thing for her and her children. But I didn’t know how much my mom wished for that until after she died. She not only allowed us to pursue our lives where and when we needed; she did not press her needs ahead of our own – as much as I’m sure she wanted to. I feel that same pressure now. As much as I want our boys close, I won’t let them think I can’t have a happy life unless they are by my side. I focus on supporting them without dictating to them how and where they should live their lives. Not an easy thing to do, but the opposite would be life-sucking instead of life-giving.
What are some things we might do out of good intent that actually holds them back?
Funny you should ask this right now – as I sit here at my computer searching for jobs for our youngest son as I know he is looking to make a change. To be honest, I’m looking here in NY hoping that if I find just the right job for him, he will move here! But I will also tell you that this is an exercise for me that he will not hear about (unless you tell him!). If I do all the research for my kids on a problem they have to solve, then whatever solution appears they will not be invested in. They will then wait on me to do the research in the future and rely on the solution I present. They become passive participants in their own lives. There is a difference between teaching our kids HOW to do something and doing it for them. Whether it’s that science fair project or preparing their resume or applying for college or even challenging a grade with a professor in college (which you really shouldn’t do), you hold them back from being their own advocates. So, I will NOT send my son the three really cool jobs I just found for him right here in my neck of the woods. I will NOT! 😉
You mention that the Journal of Adolescence reported higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life in college students. It indicated this is a result of our emerging adults having limited opportunities to practice and develop important skills for becoming self-reliant adults. What are some practical things we can do to help our progeny become self-reliant?
College turns out not to be what many of our kids expected it to be. It’s much harder, more isolating, and more challenging than they thought it would be. Many of us have spent a lot of time orchestrating our children’s different spheres of existence. If we ran too much interference in their schooling – most notably their completion of work and projects or challenging grades they earned – then they don’t have those skills when they go to college. If we determined where and with whom they socialized – then they will have trouble finding friends on their own. And if we ensured that they were engaged in activities in which they were guaranteed success, then the challenges at the college level will be both overwhelming and devastating to their identities. Although “But I’ve always gotten A’s” is a common reaction, it won’t change the direct correlation between how hard they work and the grades they earn in college. We need to give our kids opportunities to navigate these waters on their own – in their swimming pool at home before they head out into open waters.
For a lot of us sending our children to college there is a disconnect between our children’s need for some financial support and their need for independence. How do we as parents help our children make the transition to financial dependence without setting them up for failure?
The college financial conundrum! First, let me say that the fact we have this problem is actually a good thing. What I mean by that is that for those of us who do have money to financially support our children for college means we are ourselves doing well. That being said, I am not an advocate for “everyone should go to college.” Not just because it may be cost prohibitive, but because it may not be the right “fit” for every child. A college degree does not equate a job, or a good paying job at that. We have many students who are not academically ready for college, yet are accepted because our society (beginning with No Child Left Behind in the 90s) pedaled the every child should go to college agenda. That aside, life is more expensive for our kids than it was for us. It is harder and harder for a young adult to move out on his own and afford what that entails. Personally, we’re still paying our youngest cell phone bill. The goal, as we’ve spelled it out for him, is that he needs to be financially independent before he decides to marry. He needs to be able to care for himself and pay his own bills before he becomes responsible for someone else. The transition to financial independence begins with us, parents. Passing the baton onto our children so they can run the last leg of their race is important – after all, they’re the ones who will cross that finish line.
Hi Friends, hope you’re enjoying this series as much as I am. Join us on Wednesday for some deep questions around our role in our child’s identity and future.
Here’s a treat for you! Vicki Caruana and Lisa Samson, who I interviewed last week, both offered to do a giveaway. So . . . if you comment on my blog between now and Easter, your name will go into a drawing for one of their books!
The Joy of Letting Go is available now from: