The Dean of Students at my son's institution recommended a video of a parent orientation session given by a professor at another college a few years back. Professor Marshall Duke has been teaching psychology at Emory University for 40 years and is the father of three grown children. He has been addressing parents of incoming college freshmen for 25 years. The video is about 50 minutes long, and while some of it is specific to Emory, most of his talk is a humorous and compassionate introduction to parenting a college student and contains many universal truths about this exciting but also daunting transition.
Professor Duke starts with a discussion of the much-anticipated separation from our child as a "privileged moment" invested with power and emotion. Whatever is said or done during this leave-taking has heightened importance and will be remembered, giving us an opportunity to impart a life message. Initially, my response to this advice was alarm, more pressure at an already emotionally wrenching moment? But he suggests a reassuring and practical alternative for those of us unable to simultaneously sob and be articulate; take a quiet moment and write down what we want to say, our child will always remember it just as well as if we were actually capable of saying it at the time.
He describes the process of becoming a college student as a gradual acquisition of many skills. College students need to learn to juggle multiple demands within a less-structured day, establish an identity in a new environment, balance social life with studying, and advocate for themselves. There will be challenges with roommates, disappointing grades, and loneliness. But, he also reassures parents that we have adequately prepared our students to face these challenges, and "in the normal course of events no problem will arise that a student can't solve using the available resources" at their college. Professor Duke repeats this phrase three times. But, he also affirms that we know our child best, and if we hear "that voice that scares us" and tells us our child is in real trouble, call the college immediately and mobilize support.
Whether it is the first "test child" departing or the last child leaving the nest, the absence is felt acutely by the remaining family members. The family structure changes, and there is emptiness and sadness. I remember being surprised at feeling absolutely bereft during my first trip to the grocery store after dropping off our son at college. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by emotion as I asked the butcher for only six pork chops, instead of the usual seven. Or, after my daughter left, tearing up when I passed by her favorite crunchy cheese snacks at Trader Joe's. He talks about the heroic task of adjusting to the last child leaving, and the importance of telling our children we are all right, even if we aren't, thus freeing them of the responsibility of our well-being, and encouraging them to focus on becoming independent and self-reliant.
Professor Duke warns that college students are nocturnal creatures, resulting in jet lag when they visit home, even if they remain in the same time zone. And, if possible, he recommends leaving their childhood bedroom as is for them to return to.
I like his advice about parents' weekend best: don't ask, just go, and bring plenty of money for shopping and restaurants. I have already made our hotel reservations!