Our First Child is Going Away to College

Off to college! Wow, the mixture of feelings is overwhelming.  With great excitement, we’re helping our daughter buy and pack for that big new life; college. With a sigh of relief and, yes, a little guilt, we recognize that we’re also excited at the new freedom we’ll gain. We’re sad too, for we’ll miss having her at home.

There’s another feeling here though, and perhaps it’s the most difficult one – fear. We hear this fear from other parents too. At the orientation program for incoming freshmen and their parents, we heard it expressed loudly all around us: “Are there curfews?” “Does anyone check the rooms for alcohol or other drugs?” “Am I notified of failing grades?” The answer was the same for all, “no.” The anxiety grew as the realization came to each of us that our children were now to be on their own.

Making matters even more frightening, our thoughts kept going to the familiar patterns we’d known with our child; the need for constant reminders, “Did you get your homework done?” “Remember, home by midnight.” “Is your La Cross uniform ready for tomorrow?” “Careful driving when it snows and remember if it’s raining it could turn to ice.”  The list seems endless.  How can she do it on her own!

Haven’t our adolescents proven that our daily reminders to them and our continual lectures on their need for responsibility have been pretty much in vain?  The family car is still returned with the gas gauge reading “empty.” Tatiana still lies in bed after our third call that she’ll be late for school, and Parker  ­­- a sophomore – still forgetting his gym clothes!

As insecurity and fear mounted in the orientation meeting, some parents spoke out in anger, demanding that they be notified about grades, that there be a dorm check system and that there be many more controls. The dean responded with understanding and patience, but the policies of the college would remain the same.

After lunch the campus chaplain spoke to us, addressing our fears, and he read a beautiful section from Gibran’s “The Prophet.”

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

Had we prepared our child for this setting forth? Could she resist the temptations of too many campus parties and too little sleep? Would she know when to say no to fun and stay in the dorm to study? And all that drinking and drugging on college campuses – and would she take seriously the dangers of walking across campus alone at night? And when she was sick,…? Seventeen is so young!

Thinking back to those growing up years, we wondered if we’d given her enough practice with responsibility to enable her to handle what faced her now. Way back in grade school – we could have started then. We could have expected more responsibility for some of her actions. For example, we could have expected her to set her alarm and not nagged her up and off to school. What if she had been late, even frequently late? In those days, we were there to support her while she learned to deal with the consequences of her irresponsible behavior – in this case,  probably a school detention for lateness. But now, she might face much harsher consequences, and she will face them without parental support.

Also with other situations: what if we had only advised ten-year-old Milly on how much of her allowance to spend at the carnival, and then when she so unwisely spent it all, we had allowed her to go without the backpack she had been planning to buy. What did she learn about responsibility when we bought the backpack for her?  When Mateo forgot his school lunch, what terrible harm would have occurred if he’d gone hungry that day? Surely, out of these small and short-lived discomforts grows a deeper commitment to one’s own choice of behaviors. What would happen if we allow our children to experience the unpleasant but most necessary natural consequences of their irresponsible decisions?

Our daughter, in just a few short weeks, will be deciding for herself what time she’ll come in, when she’ll study, if she’ll drink, whom she’ll trust, what she’ll do about a failing grade…and as the orientation drew to a close, we knew we must accept the fact that, whether or not either of us were ready, the bow string had been released, and our daughter was on her way.

But what of our other children, as yet still at home? Soon they’ll be going away to college or moving into their own apartment or traveling. Have we been merely lecturing them about responsibility while actually preventing them from experiencing it? Or, on the other hand, have we been truly preparing them for their independence – preparing them through our loving guidance, but then stepping back to allow them to make mistakes and to live with the consequences while we’re there to help them rally and emerge, each time a bit wiser, each time a bit more ready for their own setting forth?


Copyright 1990     Judy Holmes




2 thoughts on “Our First Child is Going Away to College

  1. Eileen V Matrazzo

    My question for myself is whether I ever prepared myself to let go. A life built around my children was so rewarding and loving. I mostly knew what to expect each day and season. I had a real purpose and serious responsibility. My adult children are wonderful people, but I miss the innocence and probably my own youth. I believe I did my job well… and part of that job was to encourage the fledglings to fly from the nest…. like it or not.


  2. Ronnie Botnick

    Took a while to actually see that my children changed when they left home. They were no longer the dependent, defiant, secretive kids with whom I had lived all those years. Their adult selves started showing up and for the most part it was so much better than I expected and so much more what I had dared to hope for. So take heart, breath a deep breath and let go!


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