08/17/2010 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Long Goodbye -- Taking the Kids to College

"Are you going to cry, Mom?" my son Matt asked me on the plane ride to California.

I honestly didn't know. After all, we were on the family trip we'd spent more time preparing for than any other -- 18 and a half years of planning, to be exact. We were taking Matt, our oldest child, to college

Seven years later, we were again winging our way west taking our third child to college and I remembered Matt's question. I knew there were a lot of us in the same boat -- some 3 million families taking freshman to school -- joining a record number of college students, the National Center for Education Statistics reported. I knew the weekend would be stressful, not to mention an emotional rollercoaster -- just like the admissions process. I wondered if I'd cry this time.

But like all those other big parenting moments, it doesn't go exactly the way we've been imagining it since our children first went off to preschool. Parents who expect one Kodak moment after another will invariably be disappointed -- just like the time when the kids whined at Disney World, or the time it rained in Hawaii. That's life with kids.

First stop was Bed Bath & Beyond. Like many kids heading far from home to school, my daughter Melanie pre-ordered what she thought she wanted -- from plastic storage bins to an extra-thick mattress pad for her extra-long twin dorm bed -- at a store near our home. Now all she needed to do was pick up and pay for the order. (Good thing I had a stack of 20 percent off coupons with me.) The store, like the Colorado Springs hotel, was crowded with freshmen pushing loaded carts, parents trailing behind, presumably with credit cards in hand.

With the blue rented minivan completely stuffed, we headed to the (Colorado College) campus where 527 freshmen would be moving in over the next two days. One plus: We'd been through the drill on campus before, since Mel's older sister attended college here. "I'm an official college student now!" Mel declared happily, as she stashed her brand-new college ID in her pocket.

But all that bravado quickly evaporated when she took her first look at that empty dorm room. The big decision: How to organize the furniture to maximize the space. Should the beds be "lofted" so that they would be off the ground, with room for storage underneath? After consulting with her new roommate, it took nearly an hour of screwing, unscrewing, tugging and hammering to raise the beds and move the furniture. By the time we left that night, we were exhausted but the girls' beds were made with bright orange and turquoise sheets, clothes were hung in the closets and the room was beginning to seem like home.

"They sail the ship even if they don't exactly know the course," observes Natalie Caine of

The next day, we shopped again till we dropped -- back to Bed Bath & Beyond, a stop at the grocery for "healthy" snacks, a nursery for some plants for the window and even a local thrift shop in an unsuccessful search of a bike that wouldn't be a target for thieves. We lugged more bags up to the dorm room. We organized.

Mel puts up pictures and posters -- far more pictures of her friends than of us. She headed to a session for students; we went to listen to Richard Celeste, president of Colorado College, reassure us that we'd made a good choice.


(That's Mel [top] happily ensconced in her dorm with dormmates enjoying soft drinks).

There were sessions, receptions and picnics all weekend for parents, as well as the new freshmen, with advice on everything from not texting in class to "parenting from a distance" -- a lot different than when I went to college or even seven years ago when my son was a freshman. Similar programs are going on at colleges and universities around the country -- down to freshman convocation at Tulane University complete with a traditional New Orleans brass band.

"Today's orientation programs are designed to help parents let go," says Kris Getting Roach. She's a board member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and director of admissions and Financial Aid at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "Trust them," she urges.

Don't take it personally if your child wants to get rid of you either. That's a tough task for parents who may be used to micromanaging their children's lives. Some of the experts say professors and administrators have never gotten so many calls and e-mails from anxious parents inquiring about everything from dorm issues to grades.

Sure, we deserve better (at least a heartfelt "thanks, Mom and Dad") after helping them navigate the college-application process, calming their I'll-never-get-accepted-anywhere jitters, helping them survive the rejections and celebrate the acceptances, and, of course, agreeing to foot
the bill for their higher education.

By the next morning. Mel wasn't answering her cell phone, though we were supposed to meet for breakfast. (How did we manage before cell phones?) Turns out she locked herself out of her room without her phone. We finally connected and after avocado omelets and one last unsuccessful effort to find a bike, Mel was ready for us to leave.

"Group Hug!" she said pulling her arms around us. This time, I wipe away tears. Her dad does too. She doesn't.

Only six weeks till parents' weekend.

(You can find "survival tips" on taking your kid(s) to college by signing up for my free bi-monthly e-newsletter on

Eileen Ogintz interviews families and experts around the world for her widely syndicated column Taking the Kids ™ and is the creator of She's written seven family travel books most recently The Kid's Guide; NYC and The Kid's Guide: Cruising Alaska. For more Taking the Kids, visit and also follow TakingTheKids on twitter and like us on Facebook, where Eileen welcomes your questions and comments.