Dear Parents, It's Time to Let Them Fly the Nest

Advice for parents with college bound kids.

Posted Aug 07, 2018

As a college professor I have had numerous conversations with students about what they wish they could tell their parents. Below I translate these feelings into a letter, highlighting some of their major worries and wishes: 

Mantas Hesthaven/ Unsplash
Source: Mantas Hesthaven/ Unsplash

Dear Mom and Dad,

What a weird summer this has been. All this crazy anticipation. All the rushing around to buy stuff and pack stuff. All the June celebrations we had. All the fights and struggles since. The apologies and the smiles. And the lists. Oh, the lists.

You’ve gotten me this far. For that, I thank you. Now, let me go. Not in a sink-or-swim way. But in a way that you’ll show me you want to see me try out this thing called life on my own terms and see what happens. Maybe Buddhist philosophy offers us something here — we need to be not too tight and not too loose. As I loosen my grip on everything that is familiar here at home, please loosen your tendency to want to grip on to the new me that is emerging.

This is my launch, my flight. I may crash, but I probably won’t. So please don’t try to live it for me. Let me move to my edge. To that farthest place where I might really grow and stretch, and where my life might shift in extraordinary new ways.

You may hear from me less than you would like, especially when life is going great. But try to let me set the pace and tone for how often we text and call. And, oh my gosh, please don’t make surprise visits at college! Don’t be offended if I want to go to my friend’s or roommate’s house for one of the upcoming school breaks, or if I ask to bring people home to our house. Try to be happy that I have new friends and want you to meet them. Take an interest in them without being overbearing. You don’t need to go too crazy with care packages, either. I hear all about these parents, especially moms, who have gone wild on Pinterest to make and send the best care packages. I don’t want to be babied right now, and while I might long for some creature comforts from home, I don’t want to look ridiculous among my new friends. So, try to do this sparingly. Maybe even save some of the money, so if I want to travel abroad or do a cool internship one summer, you can visit me in that new place.

I will likely try out a lot of things in the next few years, some of which you might have tried when you were my age. Some of it will be stupid, or just for the moment, and some may be part of who I am becoming. If you want a relationship with me for the long haul, accept me and love me anyway. Because of all this, and not because of all this. Just love me. Oh, and while I am speaking about unconditional love, please don’t threaten me that you will stop helping me pay for school if I earn a C in some of my classes or, god forbid, lower than that. C is still satisfactory; it’s average. And college might be much more challenging. In fact, I hope it is. It needs to be. I will try my best, I promise. I will seek tutoring if I need it. You can remind me if I haven’t. But please just don’t hold the money over my head with my performance or my choices in friends.

If you think I may be hurting myself, or that I might hurt others, then try to talk to me with an open, non-judgmental, and listening heart. Better yet, offer me the invitation to seek out professional mental health resources and counseling, or medical services to get information on safer sex and birth control. And if you can afford it, please offer to pay for them, without criticism or judgment. Remember that I may not want to talk about all this stuff with you, yet I still might know I really am floundering and need help. Let me know that I have this chance anytime, even in the absence of any sort of crisis. Remind me to seek out mentors at school — professors, coaches, counselors, and older students — but don’t feel threatened if and when I follow their advice.

Right now, though, try to stay in the present so that I can, too. All this talk about move-in day, dorm décor, the right-sized linens, the proper hooks, arranging a box of emergency medicines for when I will inevitably get sick, meeting my roommate’s parents, and securing Thanksgiving airplane tickets before I have even stepped foot in my first class has me super nervous. So, I have wound up lashing out, yelling, sulking, retreating to my room, scrolling through my phone, and procrastinating. I want to believe that all I need I already have. But when you continually obsess over all this stuff, and most of it really is just stuff, I worry about what I might lack — on all levels.

I’m also aware that my leaving means our family will feel different soon. The dinner table will look different, maybe a little lopsided. The house might be a little quieter. It will be a little like something or someone died, but if things go the way we hope and plan they will, there will be a sort of rebirth, and this whole college thing will help me to come into myself intellectually, socially, emotionally, politically, and creatively. I am sure I do annoying things that make you want to count down to departure time; but I have a bigger hunch that you worry you will be depressed and anxious, and will mourn my absence and walk by my room and cry. Trust me, as you do that, I will walk by the lousy cafeteria choices and long for a home-cooked meal and cry.

But think about the person I am becoming, the one you might enjoy being with much more than the me now, the one you will soon be able to clink a glass of wine with and say cheers at graduation, and the one with whom you will relish in all sorts of interesting conversations for years to come. I hear it all happens so fast. You’re my parent, so things might resemble that scene in Father of the Bride where Steve Martin has a million flashbacks to his daughter Annie’s childhood the night before her wedding. You’re thrust into thinking of driving me home from the hospital after I was born, my first words, the time I dressed up in your heels at age three and stumbled around, walking me to the bus to go to kindergarten, etc. It’s all flashing before your eyes, and it stings. I get that.

Now, just think: we'll make new memories. You can visit me at college and meet my new friends. Maybe you can even join me at my favorite class and sit in with me if my professor says it’s okay. You can bake quadruple the number of chocolate chip cookies you usually make and send them at midterms, and I will share them with my floor.

And in the meantime, you can have your life back. The one you probably longed for when I was yanking on your dress in the freezer aisle to buy me popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on one of those dreadfully hot summer days. Or the one you achingly wished for the night after you cleaned up throw-up and drove in circles doing carpools to maneuver all the convoluted scheduling that my activities required. Or the one you yearned for when you had to chaperone a class trip, and it would have been way more fun to spontaneously take a road trip with a friend and dance the night away in a great dive bar.

You know that Dr. Seuss book that I got for graduation, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Well, just think, there could be one for you: Oh, The Life You Can Have Now! So, go — do the things that might make you happy.

And just think, there will be a little less laundry, the last square of toilet paper won’t be used without replacing it, and you can have your sleep back. At least until I come back to visit and want to stay out with my friends till 2 a.m.

You’ll worry about me. I’ll worry about you. About your job, since we had those problems back in 2008 after the crash. And I will worry about your marriage, because I want you to stay together — but you have to focus on each other more now for that to happen. You really do. And I will worry about your health, because I want you around for as long as possible. Even when I have not always acted like it.

You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone. But remember: I will miss you, too. And we will both be okay.