In 2013, preparing to send The Girl off to college for her first year, I found myself caught up in ridiculous conversations every time I bumped into someone who knows our family. Everyone I encountered, it seemed, had the exact same things to say. None of those things were very helpful. Many of them, in fact, were pretty hurtful. And while I knew in my heart that no one meant to be anything other than supportive of me and the Foodie family, that didn’t change the fact that I often felt insulted for daring to have an honest response to the fact of my daughter’s departure.
Now, with The Boy heading off to college as well, I find myself having a deja vu experience–the same conversations, the same hurt feelings. So I thought I’d share some of the more common Things People Say at this moment, explain why I find those things unhelpful, and offer some alternatives. If you have friends who are preparing to send a kid off to college, they’ll appreciate hearing anything other than:
It’s time to cut the apron strings!
First of all, although I do cook, I rarely wear an apron. And I have the stains to prove it.
Second: the practice of tying a kid to one’s apron strings was a method of keeping small children close by while a mother was occupied with cooking, which was a time- and labor-intensive activity for many years. Having small children underfoot didn’t make that process easier, I’m sure, which means a mother would simply not attach a child to herself in the first place if she believed that child was old enough to roam free. A rebellious child, not a mother, would be the one taking the scissors to the strings.
So before you think about saying this to a mom (because, let’s face it, no one says this to a dad), remind yourself that it makes no sense and think again.
This is your second time around, so it’s probably not as hard.
I never know what to say to this. Yes, my second child was never as special as my first, perhaps? I can’t imagine that would go over very well. Maybe It’s really no big deal at all–I’m sure we’ll hardly even notice that he’s missing. I don’t think I’d win any parenting prizes for that one, either.
Truth be told, sending my second child off to college feels more difficult, not less. In part, that’s because he’s the last one at home; The Hubs and I are preparing to make a big transition of our own here. But in larger part, it’s because The Boy is a unique person who will face unique challenges in college. He’s not going to have the exact same experience that his sister had, because he isn’t her. None of us know how this is going to go. So it’s actually really hard. And when you tell me it’s probably not, you make me feel like a whiner for admitting it is.
Aren’t you proud he/she’s going to college?
I assume that no one really believes my answer to this question will be “No, actually, I’m not proud at all. I’m really pissed off. How dare my child leave home and get an education? What does he think he’s doing, preparing for the future or something?”
The fact that I miss my daughter since she moved out (and will miss my son this fall) has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not I’m pleased and proud that both of my children earned terrific scholarships at an excellent university where they’ll get a top-notch education. I was, and am, incredibly proud of them. But if your best friend gets a terrific job offer in a different city, it’s possible to miss your friend terribly while wishing her well, right? In the same respect, it’s possible for parents to miss seeing their child every day while still taking great pride in their accomplishments.
He (or she) is going to be just fine.
I’m going to be blunt here: You don’t know that. And neither does the parent in question, or the student. Some 18-year-olds thrive in college, but many are not fine at all. Some have learning disabilities that make college a bigger challenge than the student can deal with successfully. Some are so homesick, they just can’t function in their current environment and need to switch schools. Some sink into a deep depression and need to leave school altogether for awhile, then try again later. There is no shame in any of these outcomes, because every 18-year-old person is different and some people simply aren’t ready for college until much later in life. (That’s why 30% of people over the age of 25 in the United States hold a bachelor’s degree, though 66% of high school students enroll in college immediately after graduation.)
When you refuse to acknowledge that there’s any possible outcome other than “just fine”, you make it impossible for a parent to confide any fears and concerns. You’re making it clear that you don’t want to hear them. And in doing that, you’re making the world a pretty lonely place for a worried mom or dad.
Eventually, you have to let them go.
Here is something every parent knows all too well: the process of “letting go” begins when a child is born, when you have to trust that child to breathe with her own two lungs all night long and then wake up in the morning. (Believe me when I say that it’s really hard to trust this will happen when you’re the post-partum first-time mother of a newborn.) That process continues the first time you let your child climb a ladder and go down a slide by him or herself, and when you leave your child with a babysitter, a day care provider, a kindergarten teacher, etc., etc., etc.
By the time your kid is old enough to go to the movies with a group of friends, but without an adult chaperon—around the age of twelve or so—you have long since let go of the idea that you will be holding on to your child forever. Their entire lives are devoted to becoming independent of you. As a parent, your job is to stand there and watch it happen. That’s a painful process, and it did not begin when my kid left home for college. It began on the day she was born.
Everybody goes through this at some point.
This one is just not true. Not even a little bit.
I’m the only mother of my particular children. My daughter is my only daughter. She is my only oldest child. I went through sending my first child off to college exactly one time. My son is my only son. He is my only youngest child. I will go through sending my last child off to college exactly one time. This experience belongs to me alone.
Other people from other families will be sending off their children as well, of course and I’m sure there are common elements in our experience—but they are not me, and I am not them. Our families are different. Our children are different. I am the only mom who knows how it feels to lose this particular member of my home team at this particular time.
Also: please keep in mind that some parents aren’t lucky enough to have a child long enough to send him or her off to college. Some parents lose their kids too young–some just a few weeks before college begins. Some kids run away from home before they graduate from high school. Some kids don’t finish high school, for one reason or another. Some parents encourage their kids to live at home while going to college, because university housing is a huge expense. Everybody goes through this is not only a lie–it’s an incredibly insensitive thing to say.
So what do I say?
I’m glad you asked. Fortunately, there are many things the parent of a college student wants to hear:
Is s/he excited?
This is a great question because 1.) it allows the parent to focus on the departing kid, which is all the parent really wants to talk about, and 2.) it allows that parent to be honest—to talk about both the hopes and fears involved with making a big transition. It’s perfectly okay to answer this questions by saying “Yes and no.”
This is such an exciting time—there are so many adventures ahead!
It is! There are! That’s what keeps this from being a total sobfest.
You’re starting a whole new chapter of your life.
We are. All of us. And even though this beginning part is a little sad, we’re very excited to find out what’s next.