The Long Good-Bye: Five Lessons for Parents of College-Bound Children

Updated Aug 24, 2012
The Long Good-Bye: Five Lessons for Parents of College-Bound Children


Children are born and then, for parents, the long good-bye begins. Every year I have been a parent has marked not just firsts, but lasts. This year our youngest will turn thirteen, becoming a teenager for the first time, but marking the end of children in the Reynolds house.

We have watched hundreds of parents drop their kids off at camp or college and have learned a few things in the process. As parental mistakes were made we came to recognize those parents: the ones who made growing up much harder for their adult children. Of course, there is nothing like living a situation . . . recently Hope and I realized that under pressure we easily become those parents.

We see some parents forced to realize their kids are headed in destructive directions. These kids are not just growing up, they are going bad. This is sad to see. Dealing with that situation requires special grace. Some kids' biggest assets are their parents and their problems are self-induced.

Those parents, however, have basically decent adult children whose biggest problem is Mom or Dad! That is an entirely different situation.

Whenever we find ourselves becoming those parents, we try to remember five things.

First, those parents do nothing to prepare themselves or their children for the transition to adulthood. They let it fall on their kids in one huge change.

How can you make the transition smoother?

Send your son or daughter to "college camp" to get them used to the experience. Treat it as if they were actually leaving for good. Next week our oldest daughter will go to Wheatstone, a first-rate academic summer camp, as preparation for college.

Between ages seventeen and eighteen transition family governance from "obey" to "honor." Small children obey their parents, while older children honor them. In our household, by the time our children leave the house, they are making all their own decisions. Of course, if they live in our house, they must be respectful, but in the way any adult would be.

We reach an agreement with our adult children about house responsibilities (or rent!) and then honor their autonomy.  We want our children to grow to be decision making adults. My Dad and Mom are excellent examples of this as they have gladly moved from "authority figures" to wise mentors and guides.

Dad would give me counsel in college, but not "orders."

Of course, the most extreme sort of those parents try to treat their adult children as little kids. You can use money or guilt for a short time to "win" struggles with your adult children, but this is surely folly. A wise parent knows that short term victories only lead to long term defeat. Time is on the side of your child!

Besides, turning the loving relationship between parents and children into a matter of winning or losing is a bad idea in any case.

Second, those parents think it no longer matters what they do. The kids are "raised" so parents can cut loose.

Mature adults remember that "parenting" is done, but you are still a parent.  Many parents of my college students go mad. In extreme cases, Dad will abandon his family because "the kids are grown."  In less extreme cases, the parents become unavailable or think that their example no longer matters.

While we no longer rule over our children's lives, we still reign as heads of the family. Adult children are no longer our subjects to give orders, but we can still lead by example. Hope and I want to show our adult children how to age well and that it is possible to be middle-aged, virtuous, and happy!

Third, those parents believe they always know best. They react to increased knowledge on the part of their children by diminishing the importance of whatever their child is learning.

Good parents accept that after a camp like Wheatstone or college, your adult children will often have gained wisdom from which you can learn. My sons and daughters have competencies that I do not and so I have learned to be guided by their knowledge. The joy of parenting a large brood is that one gains "in house" experts in dozens of areas!

As my kids have headed for college, Hope and I have gained the benefit of smart kids who can correct us. My son, heading into his junior year at the Torrey Honors Institute, will correct my errors or teach me the meaning of texts he has studied more closely than I have.

This increase in knowledge is a great benefit, but it goes beyond this.  If we raised our children well, they will also be wise. Hope and I have no corner on virtue and sometimes they will be right and we will be wrong when it comes to the deeper things. Learning this is even more difficult on our foolish pride!

Recently, I lost my temper and my adult son had to remind me that this was wrong. He did so gently and with great respect, but he was right and I was in the wrong. I appreciated his insight.

Having a son who loves you and gently gives you advice is a great blessing to a Dad.

Fourth, those parents think they can pick their children's major.

If a parent is paying for education, they have a right to set some boundaries, but I have never seen telling an adult child that they must major in "x" to work. If your kid is impractical and majors in something you think useless, just try to see that they get a good general education. Life will teach them if they have chosen wisely.

Remember: there is no major so "useless" as to lead to no jobs.

We want our children to be happy and so know that they must find careers for themselves. Sometimes happy people have jobs and their "avocation" (such as community theater or music) are their actual careers. Generations of church ladies knew that one need not get all their satisfaction from paid work.

Fifth, those parents value prestige over true education.

I have talked to parents, many parents, who don't care about the actual quality of the education their adult child will receive. What matters most to them is the "name brand." There is some sense to this, but not much.

It is true that a diploma from Shiny U might get you a first job, but then performance will tell the tale. A hard worker, with an actual education, from a less shiny university will do better long term than a fast starter with a good diploma, but no real education.

How do you know a school that will give you a good education? Here are three signs. First, class size is less than twenty in all your adult child's classes (including general education). Second, classes mostly are taught by full time (not adjunct) faculty. Third, the conservatory is better than the football team.

Of course, no parent should feel obligated to pay for a school that is unaccredited or a diploma mill.

No matter what you think, however, your adult child will have to make this choice. He may choose poorly, but if his school is accredited, then his decision is rational enough to be respected.

As I say good-bye to the child Mary Kate, I am saying hello to my adult daughter. Someday it is possible that our relationship will change again, and she will be the caregiver and I will be the one who receives care. Remembering this, and because of love, I will try to do to her as I wish, someday, Mary Kate will do to me.

July 28, 2010

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.


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