Beginning or Ending? Sending Our Kids to College

After writing the title for this blog, I stared at it for quite some time. Who I was referring to when I questioned “Beginning or Ending?” Did I mean us parents, or our children? Was it a “big picture” question about life in general or a smaller, specific question about our individual family constellations? Of course a few minutes of confusion and then consideration made me aware that it was all of the above. That when our kids go off to college, whether it’s our first or our last, everything changes for us and for them. For us, there’s an empty bedroom to start with. Less noise. Less laundry. Fewer groceries. And an avalanche of feelings. And for our kids? A bedroom with a stranger in it. More noise. More laundry. Fewer groceries. And an avalanche of feelings. While seemingly headed in entirely different directions, we’re becoming “empty nesters” while they’re becoming independent adults; we are actually engaged in parallel processes. Processes that have to do with adaptability, growth and risk, attachment and separation.

Rivers of ink have been written about the challenges that kids face as they embark on their higher education, their first real journey toward self-sufficiency. And colleges and universities spend time and money running seminars led by academics and mental health workers that cater to the concerns and preoccupations of anxious parents as they leave their children in the hands of strangers. While there is certainly justification for being thoughtful about this time of important transition, too often, both our children and we are paying too much attention to the wrong things and not enough to the right things. We are too often preoccupied with the kinds of concerns that are exactly the reason why young adults need to go to college. Are the courses rigorous enough? What is the plan of action if our daughter doesn’t like her roommate? Do cell phones have to be turned off in class? What major offers the greatest opportunity for employment in our global economy? This is why our children go to college. To figure out what they want to do in the world, how to handle social conflict, how to manage life without their parent’s handprint on every decision. For many of our children, the very act of leaving for college marks the first time in their lives that they are aware of being quite literally “on their own.” It is a time of great exhilaration and equally great (well, almost equally great) anxiety. Kids have all kinds of strategies for attenuating the intensity of feeling that this great transition entails. They may become impossibly difficult during their senior year, often a transparent attempt to say, “I can’t wait to leave” and for us parents to concur. They may become sullen and introverted or hyper excitable and vaguely manic. They may lock themselves in their rooms for hours and socialize only with their own tribe. Their friends, those others who are about to undergo the same process of initiation. Or they may cling to home and to family — make suggestions about dinner together or suggest movie nights. They may have been doing their own laundry for years, but suddenly develop symptoms of a pseudo-dementia where they can’t remember how to turn on the washing machine, the dishwasher or how to make a bed. They may beg for your help with the same intensity that just a year ago they insisted you were no longer needed.

Regardless of how your child navigates both the final year of high school, the transition to college and his or her first year there, you can be certain that much of what is happening is their best attempt to step into shoes that are big and unfamiliar. All major transitions in life entail excitement and anxiety and a period of experimentation. Without this period of experimentation your child is unlikely to learn the essential lessons for entering a successful adulthood. What makes a good choice? How to weigh alternatives? What is the difference between long term and short term benefits? What matters to them. To learn these lessons dictates that sometimes bad choices are made, risk is poorly evaluated and the short term is far more enticing than the long term. Hopefully you have provided enough opportunities during the many years your child lived at home so that these risks and poor choices are not habitual or life threatening.

So expect that when your child goes off to college that it will be both an ending and a beginning for them with the emphasis on the latter. They will be leaving the security of their childhood, of protection and oversight and mature direction. But they will be entering their own beginning adulthood and, after all, that was the whole point of raising a healthy, resilient, curious, good child.

As for us parents, launching our children is both a liberating and terrifying experience. We have more time to pursue the myriad of interests and talents that were put on hold, often for decades. We can actually nourish friendships and marriages in ways that were simply unavailable to us before. Too busy. Too tired. Too preoccupied. For years I couldn’t fall asleep until I heard each one of my son’s key in the door, but I found myself drifting off easily not having the vaguest idea where they were once they were in college — until they came home on vacation, when I was again hyper alert to the car coming up the driveway. Just as college is an experiment in independence for our children, so it is for us as well. We no longer have to attend to our child’s welfare every waking minute. We assume, usually rightfully, that they have learned much of what they need to lead their lives relatively independently. We are free to pick up the threads in our own lives that we had dropped over the years of child raising and continue to weave our own lives forward.

But it would be disingenuous of me to say that our new-found freedom is unequivocally delicious. After 18 or 24 or in my case, 30 years of continuous mothering I found that when my sons, especially my youngest son, left for college there was a part of me that was absolutely bereft. Thirty years is a long time to hold a position, and if not exactly fired, I was, in many ways, put out of business. No one needed to be picked up, to be fed, to be listened to or lectured to on a regular basis anymore. When they all had left the house, I was relieved, excited and a bit hollow. No counselors standing by to help me navigate the conflicting feelings of joy and happiness, relief and guilt. How odd that I attended seminars at the universities each of my sons went to on how to help them transition into their new roles as college students, but there were no seminars for me about how to transition into my new role of mother with (semi) grown children. So, like women often do, I found other women partners to talk about what was alternately a wonderful and awful stage of life. Ultimately, I adjusted, just as my children did. I kept a saying from my favorite philosopher Yogi Berra taped to my bathroom mirror. “When you find a fork in the road, take it.” Growing up, growing older, letting our children move into their own lives are not exactly decisions. They simply happen. Better to meet these transitions with optimism, enthusiasm, humor and grace. Life is all about endings and beginnings. For our children. And for us.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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