Taking Your Kid to College: 5 Secrets to Letting Go with Grace
She had her whole life squeezed between four doors and a windshield.
You have seen these cars rolling down the freeway every August and September. Maybe this year you are driving one. That was us just a week ago - boxes, bags, books and hanging clothes tucked in and piled so high we could not see out the back window of her car.
Ryan is the youngest of our four Whippersnappers and that girl has gotten this packing thing down to a magical art by now, her junior year. The first year we did it side-by-side, now she does it mostly on her own, making lists, doing laundry, ordering books and checking schedules.
I was chatting with my sister-in-law the other day, hearing her sadness, fear, doubts and disbelief at how time flies while you are looking right at it. The day of taking her firstborn to college was coming like a freight train, and I felt all those feels all over again.
I want to tell you this letting go gets a little easier every time, but I never get off scot-free.
1.Time flies and here we are.
I can still remember asking my husband, Mike, to pray for our firstborn on his first day of first grade. Mike nailed it when he replied, “I will pray for his mama.”
I was good for the first day of Preschool and even half-day Kindergarten.
It was the lunchroom that got me.
I was imagining those awkward, vulnerable, intimidating moments when all the kids are thrown together in the chaos of grade levels, cafeteria trays, brown paper bags, laughter and mingled foodie smells. I wondered where he would sit, who he would sit with. I was worried about him finding a place to belong, I was worried about his tender heart.
I was picturing him being all alone, forgotten, and then FOOD FIGHT!
Letting him go to that first grade lunchroom without me (I only thought about showing up) was practice for all kinds of other firsts for both of us.
Twelve years later, when we took Sean to college, I had all those same feelings jacked up on hipster coffee and the whirr of wider helicopter blades. Then there was that seam in my heart beginning to give way. Mike and I sat in the university chapel with all the other jittery parents of freshmen. The chaplain told us to breathe. I hadn’t even realized I had been holding my breath. I let it out. I let it out again.
He went on with pearls of wisdom that I have never forgotten. I have made it my own pep talk for these times of letting go, there are more of them than you think and they always arrive too early.
At every stage of life you got them ready for this day.
Every first day, you were there like you are now. Most of the time, you were paying attention.
Every time you prayed for their hearts and showed them what is love and home and justice and forgiveness and faith, you were getting them ready. You will keep praying for their hearts.
You taught them how to walk, how to ride a bike, how to drive, how to make decisions, how to clean their room, how to be honest and how to wear clean underwear. You taught them how to fall, dust themselves off and get back up and try again. You taught them to get along with little brothers and sisters, how to be good teammates, how to give generously into the world.
You made mistakes. You wish you could do some things over. You can't take those things back, but eventually you learned to say sorry a little quicker and got a little stronger for the next mistake.
You showed them the way. Now they have to walk in it or not. Now is the time for them to choose. Now is the time to see what they are made of, and no little bit, what you are made of.
It is time. I know it can't possibly be. You just blinked. But here it is and you can’t put it off. You wouldn’t want to. They might hate you for that and while it seems easier now, in the end, you might hate yourself.
They can do it, ready or not. You can do it, ready or not.
They will not do it alone. Neither will you.
I am not saying we just skipped out of the chapel that day. I wondered if Sean would make friends, get up to go to class, get his papers in on time or do any required reading. There was solid evidence supporting those fears. This kid could ace almost any test, but never turned in any homework in high school, even when he finally did it. No wonder we worry.
But there were bigger fears too. No matter how it was at home, you wonder about stress, depression, drinking or drugs. I wondered if a girl would break his heart. Maybe he would break hers.
Just the other day, I asked Sean (now 27, graduated (whew!), married to the girl that didn't break his heart and Daddy to a toddler), what he remembered about us taking him to college. His memory was being ready for us to go as soon as the boxes hit the floor - no unpacking, no putting books on a shelf, no nesting of any kind. He loved us, but in his mind his life didn’t begin until we were literally out the dorm room door and he was on his own.
I didn't realize it exactly at the time, but we could sense his hands on our backs. So we left him that day in the middle of unpacked bags and boxes and bare cinderblock walls. It felt unfinished, I felt unfinished, but he was just beginning with a wide smile on his freckled face.
Luckily we had made reservations at a fancy-dancy hotel for one night, so we let him push us out the door. We still had three Whippersnappers at home, so we were only playing at being empty nesters, but it did mark the transition for us in ways we still talk about today and smile.
Let their life begin. And in new ways, yours too.
2.Trust your loving God.
Me too. But then I remembered. I am not just trusting my child, I am, but he may actually blow it. Didn't we all in one way or another?
I am trusting my God and that’s a whole other thing.
I am trusting the God who knew and loved my child before the moorings of the world, God who knit his fibers together at the perfect time, who chose his birthday (or his gotcha day) and let me be there in the thick of it, who let me take him home and watch over his little red-headed noggin for eighteen years, that very God who trusted me and Mike with Sean in the first place.
My arms and legs and torn heart were flailing in all directions, I was fighting to trust the One who trusted me with his boy.
I am saying letting go is not easy-peasy, puddin' 'n pie. Having loved my college years, I was excited for Sean, yet there was around my mama's heart, a tinge of sadness. How could all that time be gone? I was there for every second of those eighteen years and it simply could not be gone.
The truth is, I would get to know this feeling again and again. That same ring of sadness like barbed wire would wrap around my heart uninvited at other happy times - graduation, wedding days and the birth of the Wonders - and squeeze.
At each of those times when my heart felt like it might burst from joy laced with pain, I would be reminded that I love a God who knows all about letting go and loving well, how to leave a piece of His tender heart behind.
And you will leave a little bit of your heart at that college campus wherever it may be. There's no way around it.
The good thing about launching your kid into college is it doesn't just happen in one day. It feels like it, one day you really do leave them there, but truly it happens over time, often in fits and starts, sometimes more smoothly, but it is a process.
And the best part? There are opportunities still to come to practice letting go with grace.
Keep your eye on the goal, a healthy, grateful, interdependent, separate from you, connected to community, genuine human being out in the world graciously loving others and making it better by being there.
That's where our knees and the Psalms come in. And care packages.
3.Send care packages.
You will send care packages. The first one being Stuff They Forgot to Bring. I am sending Ryan's on Friday.
For the Love from Home kind, I tried to wait at least two weeks, more if you can stand it, just to give your kid a little breathing room, to miss you, to be a tad lonely and to welcome that reminder of home. This is not abandonment or playing games, it is understanding the teenage heart on its way to independence.
When our oldest daughter, Kate, left for college, it was a very different story from Sean. First of all, we all went. The. whole. family. She would have brought Luke the black lab if there was any room for another 100 pounds in that car.
And we moved her in COMPLETELY, unpacking every box all the way to posters on the wall and curtains on the rod. Then we went out for pizza, then back to her dorm room. It was late when we finally said goodbye and she probably called us before we got home.
I have seen each season of letting go come in its own time, its its own way, with its own story to tell, and each kid too.
During Kate's freshman year, a group of mamas got together once-a-month to fill care packages. I think there were five of us and each mama brought five of the same items related to that month. Then we shared around the table to fill the boxes.
Whoever hosted that month put on the tea kettle or brewed a pot of coffee and grabbed the flat-rate boxes from the Post Office. We hit the aisles of Target, Dollar Tree and our local grocery store. We got serious with devotionals, creative with the seasons, goofy with random stuff like bubbles, paper crowns and beads and notes, always notes. It was a great time to share and laugh and worry and pray together.
Our last one was a finals care package and since we each mailed our own, we could customize it a bit more later and time it just right for our own student’s exam schedule. I remember Smart water, gum, highlighters, Post-it Notes, candy, granola bars and lip balm.
Back then we went DIY, but now there’s a service that will do it for you. I just ordered What's In The Box - Soul Feed for Ryan. You can choose from three package styles and you don't even have to know their school address yet to place your first order.
And here's a little secret. Apparently, there's a few encouragements for the one with a ripped seam in her heart.
My friend, Faith, gave me this piece of golden advice. Put your eyeball on your kiddo about once a month in the first year. Depending on how far from home they have gone, that could be them coming home, you visiting campus, watching them compete in their sport or meeting in the middle.
We put our eyeball on 'em about once every six weeks freshman year to connect and to see for ourselves how it was going with sleep, nutrition, friends and life. You’ll know when you see them face-to-face, meet their friends, see their favorite part of campus, visit their church community or share their favorite pizza spot.
Don't go as a spy, go for love with a discerning eye. Some kids will struggle mightily managing their own health and stress at their first shot at independence. This time can be rocky for any kid, but you are seeing for yourself how the transition is going, all the more if your child struggles with any extra challenge like anxiety, an eating disorder or a learning disability.
You are not be there to rescue unless the trouble is dire, but you are listening and connecting at a deeper level than phone calls and texts can accomplish.
Even if you sense a struggle, empower them to fix it. Acknowledge that it will be hard at some point, maybe even right now. Then offer your confidence in their own specific skills.
“You can do this. You’re good at ____________ and that will help you figure it out.”
“Remember when you did ____________. That was hard and you did it. I believe you can do this.”
They still need your words, just maybe letting go ones and fewer of them. You are entering a listening season.
Having them stay at school for the first three to four weeks before any visit home can help them make friends and get settled. You staying away for that length of time can give them space and time to figure out a few things on their own.
You know your son or daughter best, so trust your gut. In modern parenting, our tendency might be to offer answers too quickly, to smooth, to pave, to jump in all too soon. Resist. Listening and holding growing pains with an open prayful hand is powerful stuff. You are building strength and resilience into their hearts of fire.
When I think back to my childhood, I remember wonderfully attentive parents, but they didn’t even take me to college. My mama took me shopping for my first year away, but then I drove myself the 200 miles and moved into the dorm on my own.
Weeks later, maybe even months, when I came home for my first visit, there were banners across the garage doors and balloons on my bed. She had not been to visit me yet, but clearly my mama missed me. I felt both the love and the breathing room.
Our corner yard was a garden full of blooming flowers as was the sign to the neighborhood entrance and the main esplanade that ran through the center. Cleary my mama had taken her miss-that-kid energy and started seriously digging in the dirt, something she had always loved and now had more time to enjoy.
That is my last secret to letting go, think long and hard on what you will do with all of your miss-that-kid energy.
5.Consider a new thing.
When I left home for college, my Daddy started his own business from our kitchen table. My mama dug in any garden she should get her hands into and eventually, people who saw her eye for design wanted to hire her to design their landscape.
Every autumn when I headed back to school, she started buying school supplies for local school kids who might not get any. She still does this every fall.
Eventually, once both my little brother and sister left for college, she opened a home store full of gathered goods and vintage finds called Tootsie's.
It seems both my parents knew in their hearts what a friend once told me. You have to get ready for your empty nest, not waiting for the autumn your baby leaves and the sight of dust floating in the still air of an empty house to try and figure it out. You'll need momentum.
So when Sean left for college, I began in earnest to pray for what next. I didn't jump into anything, I just listened while I had three kids still at home, one learning to drive, one navigating Autism and one tearing up the soccer field. And for a little while yet, one coming home full time in the summer.
What would I do with all that miss-that-kid time and energy that I haven't done yet?
I found this took some deep soul work and I could take my time since the house was still busy and full of life. There was time to tryon a few things in my mind's eye, letting the ideas marinate, until I either moved on or the call was clear. You might get ready to move, work more or change careers. You might write, start a non-profit or travel. Your beloved might make some changes too. You'll figure it out together.
All I am saying is just start thinking about it. Pray. Take time to dream a little dream. Don't just mull. Talk about it. Write it down for one day or begin right now.
Your kid(s) will be out there spreading their wings. You got them ready to fly. Now, when the nest is empty and the wind is right, you will fly too with a little bigger heart in your chest.