Dear Parents Dropping Your Kids Off at College: You Did the Best You Could.

Curtis Zimmerman
August 16, 2019

Curtis Zimmerman

Empowering Individuals and Organizations to Live Life at Performance Level
College College & University Top 10 College University Inspiration Leadership Family Relationships

Dear Parents of incoming College First-Years,

First of all, congratulations. It's easy to get lost in all the last-minute shopping and packing and the emotions of your child getting ready to leave the nest and step out on their own, but take a minute and be proud. This is a big day. For the last 18 years or so, you've devoted your life to theirs and today represents a major milestone for both you.

You did it, and you did the best you could.

I've spent a huge part of my life on college campuses, working with parents and students to get them ready for this exact moment. In the past, this experience has given me a unique perspective on the challenges parents face when they make this transition--and now, my own son is leaving for college. The best advice I can give you (and myself) is to let go.

When kids are young, we are helicopters orbiting, looking out for them, protecting them, keeping them from harm. But your little one is not a little one anymore. They have grown up and changed. You need to change too. You cannot Velcro yourself to them. They need space to make the most of this transition in their lives.

If you interact with them 20 times a day now--by text, phone calls or social media - you need to cut it in half immediately and then in half again. College is a time of exploration and growth in a person's life and they need the space to do both those things. They can't grow if they're always on the phone with mom and dad.

And there's nothing you can say in these final moments with them that will impact their experience. Instead, their preparation has been done over the last 18 years of living with you. Give them a hug and a kiss. Tell them you love them. Shed a tear and let them go.

This is, of course, easier said than done. You'll find over the next few months that the person you have lived and breathed for over the last two decades is suddenly gone. You'll miss them. You'll feel their absence.

But, trust me: The less you hear from them, the better they are doing.

It's a fact of life and a brutal truth of parenting: kids grow up and leave us. Still, there a few pieces of advice I can give to help you over the next few months, a few helpful hints to help you through.

  1. Ghost Checking.

    Chances are pretty good that they will be in touch a lot in the early weeks, but over time, it will be less and less. Don't hover, but if they aren't responding to you for two or three days, try this: write them a letter. Tell them you miss them and hope they are well. Tell them you hope the enclosed check for $50 will help them with food and other needs. But here's the thing--don't send a check. I promise you'll hear from them within minutes after they open your note.

  2. Care Package Strategy.

    Every college kid looks forward to the college care package. A box of their favorite goodies sent from home helps them feel connected. The problem is that they live communally now. They live with dozens, even hundreds of other hungry, homesick kids. Don't spend all your time filling a box of your kid's favorite treats unless you're prepared to have his vulture dorm companions eat most of it. Try a false-bottom in the care package box. Put your child's favorites on the bottom. Add a layer of cardboard and fill the top with bulky unsentimental items like cookies and Gummy Worms. A package from home - any home - is like a magnet. Make sure your child gets the best stuff just for them.

  3. Figure Yourself Out.

    The next few months are going to feel pretty lonely, especially if you don't have a house full of other kids. It will be quiet and alien. Now is the time to work on you. Take the scuba class you always wanted to take. Make date nights a priority. Orient yourself to the next phase of your life, which is to say, the rest of your life. Keep busy. You've put a lot of time, effort and focus into your child for the last 18 years. Now you have to figure out what life looks like after that period. It's daunting, but also an opportunity. Attack it. 

Finally a few words about your fears. Every parent worries about the same things when it comes to their child going off to college. Will they make friends? What about drinking? What about sex? Will they prioritize their classes? Let me put your mind at ease. They will make friends, but they might drink. They might have sex. They might bomb an exam because they were out too late the night before. (The college students who never do any of these things are the exceptions, not the rules.)

You can't be there to protect them from mistakes, you can only hope you raised them to make the kinds of decisions that don't lead to long-term regret or other serious consequences.

However, there are three things, you can still influence, lessons you can impart that will have a farther reaching impact on their long-term success. I view these as essential and you probably should have been working on them in the last few months. But just in case, carve out space to teach them.

  1. Make sure they understand how compound interest works and how to balance a checkbook. Some first-year students get a credit card and go crazy, screwing up their finances for years to come. They have had no lessons in compound interest, which means that when they graduate, they will be making the least amount of money they will for the rest of their lives and will already be strapped with debt. Teach them how to not make it worse.
  2. Make sure they can cook three of their favorite meals and how to do it for four or five people. College kids eat horribly. A bit of self-sustainability in this aspect will go a long way - for their health and their friendships. The most popular kid in the dorm is the one who knows how to use that kitchenette in the basement to whip up something delicious.
  3. Make sure they know how to do laundry - not just how the machine works, but how to do it properly. Something you should have had them doing for the last several years anyway, but it's not too late. Make them a cheat-sheet checklist. There's nothing worse than walking around in a pink t-shirt that used to be white because you don't know how separate loads.

That's about it. Congratulations again. This is a huge step for both of you. I'm proud of you. Now, drop them off and go. You've got a table full of unread books just calling your name!


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