Avoid the Mystery Punch: and Other Tips for Parenting Your College Student
If a young adult in your life is preparing to fly the coop and soar into college life, check out the advice of this seasoned dad.
OK! Sweetheart, I see you’re all packed and ready for your very first day of college. I notice I didn’t have to beg you to pack. Ve-e-e-ry good. But before you leave I just have to tell you that these last eighteen years have been the best years of my life, really—starting when your mom and I decided that one of us, either her or me, should stay home to hold down the fort all week while the other works outside of the home. You know, of course, that not all families can do this.
But thanks to your mom the-business-genius-and-platinum-frequent-flyer, she’s given our family what more and more families nowadays just ache to have—me! A real Mr. Mom. A maintenance man, homework helper, and prison warden all wrapped up into one. I wore a lot of hats. I learned on the run. Between you and your older sister I logged over twenty years of experience in the trenches. I’m reminded of the Peace Corps slogan: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”
That’s the abridged version of what I shared with our younger daughter before her first day on campus. This was not her first time hearing my reference to the Peace Corps. I regret this.
Usually I uttered the Peace Corps slogan under my breath and under duress, the first time being when she was a baby and her mother was attending business events as far away as Hong Kong and Tokyo, gone as much as a month at a time, leaving me with two kids under three and invariably in the middle of flu season.
I again made comparisons between the Peace Corps and parenting when our two girls were in middle school and I swore their heads would spin 360 degrees when I offered a solution to a problem involving, say, clothes or hair or…boys.
I made the comparison again this past summer, the night before our youngest daughter left, though this time without any mumbling from Dad. I felt happy in knowing that, just as her age and mine had grown proportionately closer each year, she and I each year had grown increasingly closer to each other, and we spoke with love and candor. The past eighteen years were the best of my life, but they came with more growing pains, emotionally and spiritually, than I could ever have expected. And I wouldn’t trade a bit of it for anything on earth. I just wish that somebody had maybe clued me in, back when my wife and I were rookies, on what parenting requires. We quickly learned how even the best-intentioned parents can be blind-sided.
What we needed was some perspective on parenting from somebody who really knew. Somebody who’d lived it, somebody who could laugh, even when the opposite seemed like a good thing to do.
I seem to remember someone trying to offer some perspective, but what I possessed in youth and energy I lacked in wisdom and humility. I’ve often thought that, though I can’t relive those early days, I might some day help others who take parenting as seriously as I did (and still do), but who this very minute stand in the trenches up to their armpits in hard work.
My wife and I are now qualified to join that group with the peculiar name “empty-nesters.” Our house is quieter. The pace has slowed. We live in Colorado. I have time now to stare at the mountain peaks, to pray, to breathe deeply, to reflect. As compelled as I felt to speak candidly with my daughter the night before she left, I feel the tug to write candidly to other parents who see college on their near horizon, and to grandparents or any other caregivers in charge of young people who might appear older than their years but who are still impressionable and tender.
So I made a list—a top-10 list of sorts. I dedicate it to our youngest daughter who, on the night before she left for college, stood on the edge of her parents’ nest, practically trembling with anticipation, ready to take off…and soar.
Her bedroom will make a great media room.
Don’t talk; just listen
We can’t do much to help our kids if they don’t first feel safe. And they feel safe only if they can tell us what’s going on inside of them—without our interrupting.
Feeling safe, they may want to know our opinion, but we shouldn’t hold our breath. They may ask later. But not right now. Right now they’re vulnerable to hurricanes that often rage inside of them, and they’re still young and inexperienced. They might act as if they know it all, but everybody knows, deep down, that they don’t. So let’s play along until the storm dies down and let them feel safe by being still while they talk.
“Though its waters rage and foam and mountains totter at its surging…Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:4, 11).
Let them fix their own problems
If they’re in imminent danger, then we of course rescue them. But short of that we need to let them fix their own problems. How else are they going to learn?
They need our example, but they’ll forget what we’ve taught if we don’t let them act on their own. They must feel vested, personally, in what they do. Otherwise, if they do succeed, they’ll do so not because of us but in spite of us.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart. On your own intelligence do not rely” (Proverbs 3:5).
Be careful with compliments
We all want what’s best for them. But they can’t be the best—not in everything. So let’s be honest. Let’s not say that they’re the best student, best athlete, and the wittiest person you ever met. Sing those praises to your spouse. Lies and half-truths set up kids for disappointment, in which case the message they end up hearing is that we prefer somebody better.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am”
(1 Corinthians 15:10).
Let’s remember that we, too, were once young
When our kids act stupid, let’s remember who raised them. They’ll grow up. We did. Eventually.
They just need a little more time to develop their frontal lobes, the part of their brains where wise decisions are made. Until then, let’s be patient. Let’s see humor in their best efforts. Or just see them as a chip off the old block.
“God has given me cause to laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6).
Show the love
A unified home front will motivate any kid to take a worthwhile risk. That kid knows he’s covered. All the more when Mom and Dad show affection to each other. In the eyes of an attentive child, a hug and a kiss will make an impression. So will the love of a father who puts the needs of his wife first. So will the respect of a woman toward the man who’s loyal to her and her children.
When we give our spouse our love and respect, we show the happiness of sacramental marriage, so that our kids will seek, sacramentally, a loving and respectful spouse.
“The greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Don’t criticize their friends
Friends are as much a part of our kids as their gastrointestinal tract. If you criticize the friend, then you criticize the child. And if their best friend wears a bolt through her nose, relax, they’ll catch on in time. Before then, however, we do not make this friend a forbidden fruit. And whatever we do, we don’t criticize any of our kids’ brothers or sisters. Somebody’s bound to blab what we’ve said. So speak kindly about everybody and they’ll all be home for Christmas.
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
They may not be able to read our minds, but our kids can read our faces. They know when we’re worried. We tend to get quiet. We stare out into the distance. We’re afraid. Stop it. We must not assume that, overnight, our kids will forget everything we ever taught them. They won’t arrive at school and take leave of their senses. They won’t flunk out and marry a hippie. They will, however, give us an opportunity to prove our faithfulness, and trust. In God. And in them.
“Then the boy’s father cried out, ‘I do believe, help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24).
Step away from the mystery punch
Let’s just get right to that once-in-a-lifetime event, parents’ weekend—the one weekend on college campuses when we get to see our kids for the first time since they left. The activities go all day and, if that’s not enough, the parties go all night. It’s enough to make us think that we are back in school.
Please resist such thinking. Most people do develop a frontal lobe, which I referenced in point 4, but all of us reading this have grown ours already. Moms. Don’t lead cheers at the football game. Dads. Step away from the mystery punch. Don’t even consider what’s in it. And put down that ridiculous red plastic cup.
All of us need to remember who we are and that our kids still need a mom and a dad. Not a cheerleader. Not a frat boy. Better to be remembered as a stick-in-the-mud than as an embarrassment to our offspring.
“Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Your every act should
be done with love” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14).
Love them enough to let them go
What a concept. This letting our kids leave. We love them more than we love ourselves and, here we are, encouraging independence. From us! The ones who bathed them, cried over them, bled for them. Just thinking about it, it’s more than I can bear sometimes.
My daughter once suffered a broken heart over the loss of a friendship. When she was done crying I recalled a lesson that involved a bar of soap in the shower. To keep the bar from squirting loose we hold it loosely in our palm. If we squeeze, we lose what’s important.
I thought the lesson was for her. It was all for me!
“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard…what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Love them a lot; love God the most
I remember the time I went to reconciliation when my kids were little. My sin, among others, was that I was convinced that I didn’t love God the most.
The priest asked me, “Why do you say that?”
“Because every night before I go to bed,” I said, “I check on my two daughters. And they’re lying there all tucked in and asleep and looking so innocent, and my heart just wants to burst with love for them. I love them and their mother more than anything! So that’s why I’m convinced I don’t love God the most.”
The priest laughed. I was shocked. “What is so funny?” I said.
The priest said, “You call that a sin? You’ve been given a great gift. You describe looking down with great love on your children? Now you know how God in heaven looks down on you!”
“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1). •