By Courtney Layson
College Adjustment 101 for Parents and Kids
I still remember standing there in my newly decorated dorm room at Mississippi College. All the pictures were hung. The two twin beds were made with matching spreads and more pillows than I could count. The closets stuffed with clothes, shoes, toiletries, and books. This was as clean and organized as my room would ever be. Everything was in the perfect place—except me. The entire day had been an exciting whirlwind of new faces, parents, and friends. Upper classmen helped all of us freshmen move in and get settled. My mom had scurried around cleaning and organizing while my dad did the heavy lifting. But now? Now it was quiet. Everyone had gone home, and my so-called-college-life had begun.
In high school, we long for independence and freedom. We might even start to feel claustrophobic in our parents’ home or in our hometown. By senior year, we often start to imagine our future. We long for something new and exciting. For me, the four years of undergraduate study were some of my best memories. Some of us are lucky enough to experience the freedom of living away from home without the full responsibility of adulthood—this is a luxury. But this experience is not something that comes without cost. And there are a few things that I wish I had known before setting off on my college journey.
Freedom equals responsibility. Graduates, you are now FREE! You can create your own schedule. You can stay out late. And while you no longer have a list of chores, if you don’t wash your clothes, you’ll have dirty underwear. No one is looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do, but that means you bear the burden of responsibility for your choices. When you turn 18 you can vote for the President of the United States, but you also go to big jail if you break the law. See, this whole freedom thing is a mixed bag. It’s absolutely amazing when used properly. But if you abuse it, the consequences are harsh. My suggestion, proceed with caution. Use your gift of freedom wisely so that you flourish during this season of life.
To Parents: If you are enabling your children to be irresponsible with the gift of freedom, PLEASE STOP. Their future roommates, spouses, bosses, and children will thank you!
Accountability is a challenging concept in college. Parents are often in an unusual position of paying for college-aged kids while also extending a new level of independence to them. Students, let’s be clear. Your job is to graduate. This is not simply an interesting life experiment. Your parents want you off the payroll. If your parents are paying for your room and board, your tuition, your lifestyle, they will probably expect regular progress reports. This is similar to an employee/employer relationship. There is a task to be completed. If you meet the requirements set in place, you get paid. If you don’t, you get fired.
To Parents: Sometimes kids just aren’t ready for the responsibility of college life. If your kids aren’t meeting the expectations you’ve laid out for them, bring them home. It’s ok to take some time to consider alternatives or next steps. You are not required to bankroll your child’s 4-year vacation from life. Having parents who can afford to pay for college and/ or graduate school is a huge gift! You have the right to ask for certain criteria to be met in order for that gift to continue.
Relationships Matter. Kindness matters. People matter. This is always true! Even during rush week. How we treat people who are less popular, less powerful, less like us says so much more about us than it does about them. So many times, we succumb to pressure to fit in that we forsake the people we hold most dear. During college, focus on who you want to BE more than who you want to BE WITH. We can spend years and years of our life trying to impress the “right” people. But here’s the truth that no one tells you, there is no such thing. Being an authentic person who genuinely cares about others is rare in our culture today. If you focus on being loyal, wise, faithful, honest, caring, and compassionate, people will naturally be drawn to you. If you try to fake these things to impress others, people will avoid you.
To Parents: The best way for our kids to grow up to value others is to see it in us first. When we fight for attention and position and power, our kids notice. But when we sacrificially love our spouse, our friends, our kids, they notice that too. Let’s all promise to show them how to live life in healthy community with others instead of teaching them how to spend life jockeying for position and fighting for a seat among the popular and powerful.
Faith during college is different than faith during high school. When we’re young, we look to our parents for guidance. If our parents tell us something, most of us believe it to be true. As we get older, we begin to challenge some of the things our parents, teachers, preachers, etc. tell us. This is a developmentally appropriate stage of life. Your journey in college is an opportunity to flex your spiritual muscles. You can begin to explore ideas like theology, culture, and religion in order to own your faith. This may feel a bit uneasy at first, but trust that God is big enough to answer any questions you have. Don’t shy away from the tough stuff. Ask hard questions. Search for answers. And allow room for the mystery of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct you as you work your way through life.
To Parents: The best thing we can do to encourage our kids in their faith journey is to listen first. If our own fear takes control we are more likely to offer platitudes and advice that will inevitably shut down further communication. God’s grace is big enough here. We don’t have to act as the cruise director on the faith journey. He loves our kids more than we could imagine, and He will not forget them. Our best bet is to imitate the love of Christ in our relationships with them and to set an example by living a life worthy of our own calling as children of God.
Courtney is a graduate of Asbury Seminary. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Christ United Methodist Church. She and her husband Steve live in Madison and are the parents of three children.