In the summer before our kids go to college it is easy to feel that we still have much to teach them as the time slips away. Life lessons and laundry usually top the list of things parents want their kids to know before move-in day.
Brutal honesty here: my kids had only a passing acquaintance with a washing machine when I dropped them at their dorms. Although it is top of mind for many parents with graduating seniors, I let mine go off to college clueless. Early in their first semester much texting ensued with questions about how to remove purple ink from white T-shirts.
But I had a hefty list of other things I needed to teach my boys before they left.
Sickness. Freshmen live in a festering cocktail of germs gathered and shared from all over the country. They reside in close quarters, fail to sleep enough and few get through the early months without some sort of illness. Up until now we have largely made the decision about when to go to the pediatrician, the walk-in clinic or worse — the Emergency Room. Now it is up to them. While sick 18-year-olds often seek the counsel of their parents, it is time they learned when sick is really sick. They need to know how to assess their symptoms and what constitutes a minor cold versus a doctor’s visit. Before they go it is essential to review with them how to use over-the-counter medications. It is very easy for them to get confused in the aisles of a drug store at 11 p.m. and take the wrong medication or dose.
Friendship. Friendship in college comes with greater responsibility. It is important that our kids understand the signs of a friend in trouble and how to best help him or her. Parents are inundated with stories of sexual assault on campus, unabated binge drinking and widespread depression and mental illness. One of my kids described the college years as a time of high highs and low lows. The reality is that almost every college kid gets down sometimes, but our kids need to be alert for the signs of a friend in real trouble and know how to get their friend the help they need.
Where is it? Kindergarteners lose their gloves but college kids lose their driver’s licenses, credit cards, students IDs and keys. To avoid a phone call every time one of these surprisingly common losses occurs, talk your kid through the drill of what to do before they misplace each of these necessities. At the same time, make them memorize their social security number, because they will text you many, many times urgently looking for this and not once will you be where you can look it up.
Yes, laundry. Teaching teens to do laundry is one thing but teaching them how often to do it is entirely another. A lack of clean underwear is what sends most kids scurrying to the washing machine, but somehow dirty sheets and towels don’t have the same impetus. Parents may need to disgust their offspring. I am sorry, it is a dirty tactic (no pun intended) but 18-year-olds need know how unsanitary it is to go for months without washing their linens.
Staying in touch. In my house the grandparents call, I chat with them and then hand the phone over to my kids. While this worked for 18 years, it was hardly a long term solution. If you are old enough to go to college, you are old enough to take responsibility for staying in touch with your grandparents. It is not that complicated, although it may mean them teaching the oldest generation how to text.
Travel. Parents who do this right may find that they are no longer travel agents. As our kids travel back and forth to school they need to make their own arrangements by booking trains, planes, buses and rental cars. They need to know about the complexities of travel including insurance, extra charges, fines and fees. They have good young eyes and it is time for them to learn to read the fine print.
Let’s be honest. As much as we would love to know everything about our kids, most 18-year-olds lie or withhold information from us. When they were home we could keep somewhat of an eye on them. Once they’re gone, and if they are not forthcoming with us, they will need to find their own help. Before drop-off it is important to talk about mental health, personal safety, and academic challenges and how to seek help when they need it.
Appreciation. College kids should know how to set up utilities, pay their bills and, of course, cook something that requires more than three minutes in a microwave. But perhaps the most important thing they need to know, the one they cannot look up on the internet, is just how fortunate they are. We may have always hoped that our kids would go to college and they may have always expected it, but this in no way diminishes the profound opportunity that lies before them.
Before we take them dorm shopping, move them into their rooms or say goodbye, our freshmen should understand what a rare and special gift college is.
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