For the millions of parents who will send a son or daughter off to college in the fall, this is the summer of lists: making travel arrangements, picking meal plans and ordering linens and other items for the dorm.
But two lists, in particular, are of the utmost importance: One will help kids with the realities of being on their own for the first time. The other will prepare them—and you—for the emotional toll of this major milestone.
The first list is practical. As parents, we pride ourselves on getting our kids ready to leave the nest and soar on their own. But then reality sets in—and the kids land with a thump.
I remember feeling like a terrible parent when my oldest, Emma, called home at the beginning of freshman year to ask me how many stamps she needed to mail an envelope and where to buy them.
My good friend, Mindy, says she felt like a failure when her daughter called to ask, “Do you separate laundry by weight?”
Another friend, Ruth, who has seen three children through college, recalled a litany of first-year cluelessness: “How do you know what light bulbs to buy?” “How do I send a box by mail?” “How do I find a dentist?” “I think I broke my foot. Did I?”
Whether such ineptitude is a byproduct of us having overindulged our kids is beside the point. No need to beat yourself up now. Just use this summer to teach a few of life’s basic skills—and save yourself some panicky late-night calls, not to mention feelings of parental inadequacy.
- Teach them to do laundry and then insist that they do their own—clothing, sheets and towels—for the entire summer. By the time they get to college with a roll of quarters in hand, they’ll have the hang of it.
- Teach them the basics of banking—how to use an ATM card, how to write a check (or make a payment online), how to deposit money and how to balance their account. As an added bonus, then ask them to teach you how to use Venmo.
- Teach them how to navigate public transportation. Most kids go off to college without access to a car, and obviously they won’t have you to schlep them places. If they don’t already know, teach them how to get around on buses, subways and trains, and then take away the car keys for a while so that they gain confidence.
- Teach them how to cook a few things. While most freshmen are on some kind of meal plan, knowing how to cook at college can come in handy. Many dorms have communal kitchens, and it can be fun to occasionally make a meal and eat with friends. And just in case your kid ends up living off campus at some point, knowing his or her way around the kitchen will be useful. Plus, making a point of cooking and eating together a few times a week over the summer is a nice way of spending time together as a family.
That said, don’t be surprised if the last thing your teen wants to do is hang out with you. As I wrote at the time, the summer before my daughter left for college, she went AWOL. As far as I was concerned, Emma went out with her friends too much, spent too much time at her boyfriend’s house and stayed out way too late.
Over time, I came to understand that Emma’s uncharacteristic rebellion and moodiness were her ways of “soiling the nest.” In order to make it easier for her to leave in the fall, she was going to make my husband and I so miserable that we couldn’t wait for her to go. In other words, she was doing exactly what she was supposed to do—getting ready to grow up and out.
Given all this, emotions can run high, so as promised, here are a few more tips to make it easier to let your son or daughter go:
- Make sure your grad sets aside some one-on-one time with you, your spouse and any sisters or brothers, and does so regularly through the summer. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it’s fun. (This does not include going to Bed Bath & Beyond to buy stuff for college.) Head on a hike, take a walk on the beach, go out for lunch or coffee, watch a movie—whatever makes sense for your family.
- If you can manage it, take a family vacation. It doesn’t have to be anywhere fancy (and can even be a long weekend away). My friend Ellie and her husband, David, took their kids on a road trip up the California coast before their eldest went off to college. “All the kids have said it was their favorite trip we ever did,” Ellie says.
- Buy them one beautiful thing. This advice comes from Lisa Heffernan, cofounder of Grown and Flown, a parenting blog for teens and older children. “This moment, these last days, are worthy of commemorating,” she says. “Do not let them slip by unmarked. Jewelry and watches are traditional choices for senior year, but beauty and meaning, not expense, are the salient factors in this purchase.”
On that front, I indulged Emma—something I don’t usually do. I bought her a somewhat extravagant comforter for her bed at school to make her feel cozy, comfortable and at home. It was my way of tucking her in from afar.