As our high school graduates are getting packed up and we all scurry around finding those odd XL twin sheet sets that only fit a college bed, our children worry about getting their dorm rooms just right and perseverate as they stalk potential roommates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We, their parents, perseverate too.
Like our children, so many of us parents are worried about the wrong things as we prepare our kids for the start of a college career. We fail to use this seminal moment as an opportunity to share values. The reasons are many. We get distracted by the details, and there are a lot of them to manage. We get sidetracked by our children's articulation of their needs. But most significantly, perhaps, we are afraid. We fear sharing values that may not be "popular" with our kids. We fear "intruding" on their independence at the very moment they are preparing themselves to leave our nest.
This fall, I would like to propose an alternative approach. Don't let all of the noise of preparing these things distract you from the significance of preparing your child. Yes, they look like adults at this point, but they aren't. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health clearly show that the parts of the brain required for impulse control and planning ahead are the last to mature. As their parents, we need to take this opportunity to focus on what really matters as we drop them off for school.
Just recently I had the opportunity to give it a try myself. As I sat in the airport last September waiting for my flight home after taking my son to school, I wondered if he had been listening all of these years. Did he get the wisdom I intended to impart? Did any of it stick? Was he really ready to go and do without me? Like a good Jewish mother, I decided then and there that a little more guidance wouldn't hurt. I sent him the following list, entitled, "11 things to think about as you start your college life" and here it is:
1. Anticipate consequences to the best of your ability -- this requires that you think before you act. I know that the teenage brain is impulsive and you seek immediate gratification, but restraint and foresight will serve you well.
2. Take care of the people around you... your roommate, dormmates, classmates, and girlfriends. This really matters as it speaks to your character and shapes how people view you and ultimately how you view yourself. Comport yourself with dignity so you can feel good about how you treat people, even those who you don't like.
3. Take care of yourself... really. Make time to work out, stay in shape, get enough sleep, remember hygiene, and eat healthy food most of the time. And don't ignore symptoms if you do get sick. You haven't been on your own before, so it is up to you to listen to your body and learn how to protect it so it works for you.
4. Go to class and do the work. It seems simple... but that is the formula for success in school. High school was a much more rigid and monitored environment, in college you will be expected to manage your time, pace out assignments and seek out help.
5. Use the adults in your world to help you succeed and grow. Teachers, mentors, parents of your friends -- find them, call them, meet with them, confide in them. Experience matters and they have more of it than you do. These people want to be in your life and want to help you succeed. Just ask and you will be surprised how excited people are to support your efforts.
6. Try something outside of your comfort zone academically. College offers so many choices; take advantage and push yourself, maybe religious studies or semiotics or philosophy. This is a great opportunity for exploration; so don't fail to take a risk or two academically.
7. If you get into trouble or you see trouble lurking nearby, ask for help! Don't delay, get help. Sometimes this keeps a little problem from getting big or helps contain a big problem so that it isn't catastrophic. Think about this like a stairwell; it is easier to recover and climb back up if you catch yourself at the first landing and don't tumble all the way to the bottom.
8. Stand up for what's right. Don't be a bystander, don't ignore injustice or compromise your values. College campuses are often bastions for polarizing rhetoric. Take the time to listen respectfully, but stay true to yourself and never be a lemming. I know fitting in seems like the most important prerogative, but be the mensch you are even when it doesn't feel popular.
9. Don't do drugs! Just don't. It is a slippery slope with potential for grave consequences and you don't need to be high to enjoy all that life has to offer. Drugs alter your reality and impact your judgment. Your reality is amazing without trying to augment it with narcotics. It may seem easy to ignore this advice and eye-roll this parental logic. I hope you take pause to consider the dangers of drug use, whether it is habituated behavior, compromised judgment, or addiction.
10. Remember how much you are loved and admired and respected by the people in your life and work to maintain the excellent reputation you have earned. It is far easier to lose these things then to regain them once they have been lost.
11. You will make mistakes -- we all do. It is part of life. The tragedy isn't in making the mistakes; it is in not learning from them. Pay attention to the lessons you are learning along the way and don't repeat the errors. Fail better. Fail well.
Any such list is partial; I tried to keep it to my top 10, but couldn't resist adding number 11. Still, it is better to send the fledglings off with something rather than nothing at all.
To be sure, there are many of us parents who are afraid to speak up to their kids and worry about being embarrassing, annoying or uncool. But if we don't take advantages of these opportunities, we fail them, in the end. Remember that as parents, one of our primary goals is to launch our kids with the tools they need to succeed. College is a big test of their preparedness and resiliency. It is our job to help them do what their brains can't yet comprehend: anticipate consequences, consider implications, and plan ahead.
Of course, we need to share our values with our children whenever the opportunity presents itself, and the transition to college is not the only occasion to share values and speak honestly and directly with your children. For those with younger children, a bar/bat mitzvah, or graduation, or birthday can serve just as well. And do not be disappointed when you don't get a heartfelt response to your missive. The impact will manifest not in their emotional reply but rather in the change in their actions. My son showed me he was listening when I observed his behavior during his freshman year. He wasn't perfect, but he heard me.
So don't let this particular opportunity pass you by. Once the Bed Bath and Beyond trips have been made, the Internet has been accessed, and the snacks for the room have been purchased, take a moment to share your values. Write your list or share a version of mine. You worked hard this summer to prepare that dorm room; don't miss the chance to prepare the being who will inhabit it.