You’d think I’d know what to expect! The child graduating from high school in a couple of short weeks is the fourth to launch. But somehow the arrival of graduation day still takes me surprise. It seems to have happened in a heart beat – the wonderful arc from babyhood to now. There have been lots of practice transitions, of course: first to daycare, then kindergarten, to elementary school, middle school, high school. But this one feels different – only because it really is.
Going away to college is just that – going away. Come fall, the rhythm of our daughter’s days and ours will be dramatically different. We all know that this summer is going to be about making the transformation from teenager-at- home to young-adult-out-in-the-world. I’ve learned to treasure this summer of in-between. It’s a time for getting ready and for letting go. I’ve also learned a few things along the way from our three older children. It’s reassuring that psychologist colleagues who specialize in young adults tell me that what I’ve observed and experienced is pretty typical.
No matter how excited and happy we all are that the next child is heading off to school, it’s still a change. Even positive, expected, and welcomed change is change. And change is stressful. It’s not unusual for young people to occasionally have a meltdown or get irritable. It’s also not unusual to find their parents being overly sentimental or cranky now and then. It’s part of the process. Shifts in mood only certify both parties as normally abnormal. I’ve learned that it will all settle down, probably by Thanksgiving.
Not surprisingly, kids deal with this transition as they have many others. The shy one will approach it with the same quiet anxiety that is always there with change. The kid who covers worry with boldness and noise will do the same now too. A personality transplant doesn’t come with the high school diploma. None the less, the kids have been growing up in ways we don’t always get to witness first hand. Home is often the safe place; the place where the child feels he doesn’t have to try quite so hard. At one time or another, someone outside my family has commented on the maturity and insightfulness of one of my transitioning kids. Ironically, it’s often at a time when I’m despairing that that very same child doesn’t seem at all ready to tackle the world.
Some kids start to distance from their parents and siblings well before the car is packed. Fights with siblings and parents over seemingly minor things get more frequent and more intense as the summer months go by. It’s as if the only way the child who is leaving can bear to move on is by finding something to be angry about. “It was a really tough summer,” said one of my friends. “Nothing I said or did was okay. When he got housing information in the mail, I suggested he give his new roommate a call and was told to mind my own business. Two weeks later, he was upset with me for not helping him figure out how to sign up for a special Freshman floor. I didn’t even know he was considering it.”
Other kids become surprisingly clingy and moody, as if they only just figured out that they really are leaving home in a significant way. “I got more hugs in the August before he went to school than I’d had for the prior 4 years”, my neighbor sighed. Her son went to a school 6 states and a plane fare away. “Of course, it was not okay for me to get weepy“, she added. Probably it was all he could do to manage his own feelings. Fortunately, my neighbor and her spouse have a supportive group of friends and extended family who could listen and be there for them while they were working on being there for him.
Equally startling to some parents is the reaction of younger siblings. The very kids who regularly bickered with and/or ignored each other sometimes have a very hard time with the separation. “When my big sister went off to college,” says my youngest, “I was very excited for her. But after she’d been gone for a few days, I suddenly realized I wasn’t going to see her unless we made complicated plans. She was always like a second mom to me! If it weren’t for Instant Messenger, it would have been terrible.” Fortunately my oldest got it. She did stay in touch. She did invite her little sister to come to her college for a weekend visit. She did make sure to spend time with her when she was home on vacations. Never the less, it was a huge adjustment for them both.
When I asked a number of friends and colleagues what they most wish they had done differently, I was surprised to find that it usually had something to do with money. Many lamented that they hadn’t quite gotten around to helping their students learn to budget, to keep good records of expenses, or to juggle bills while they were in high school. It was always easier to just handle money matters themselves; either because it was complicated or because there wasn’t enough of it. The summer before college is a time when many families get motivated to finally deal with money matters. We parents and our children know that we won’t be there to open our wallets or monitor spending. Lots of stress can be avoided if both sides are clear who is responsible to pay for what during the school year and if parents have some confidence their kid can manage basic finances.
The college financial aid office usually has a good idea of what is an appropriate amount of money for a student to bring for books, supplies, toiletries, an entertainment budget, and a cushion for emergencies. “I wish we’d been clearer,” said Linda. “We thought we had budgeted well but my daughter went through her spending money by November, partly because we didn’t understand how expensive textbooks have become and partly because she had never had that much money to manage before. We’re going to do things differently with her younger sister. We’ve already got her paying her cell phone and car insurance bills herself so she’ll get practice.” Like Linda, I learned from mistakes we made with our oldest who always insisted that her money from her work-study job was enough to pay for expenses. We didn’t find out until much later that she also racked up a sizable credit card debt. To her credit, she paid it off herself (and before we found out about it). But I felt awful that we hadn’t given her enough education about managing money or staying away from credit card traps. Now we know to turn over some bills to our kids while they are still in high school as a way to practice making payments on time and balancing accounts. My soon to be college student has increasingly handled her personal expenses over the past few years. She has learned just how much work it takes to make money and how quickly it can be spent if she isn’t careful.
Close behind money was advice about spending some special time. The parents in my informal survey were all agreed that it’s important to affirm the present before launching into the future. In the summer of in-between we are at the beginning stages of moving from active parent to supportive adult. Shifting the relationship deserves time and attention. Yes, it may seem to your teen that spending time with the family is for little kids. Several friends who couldn’t arrange a family vacation due to summer jobs and teen reluctance, found that a day trip or two could still be valuable talk time. There’s something about the privacy of a car that lends itself to conversation. Time away, even for a day, removes usual distractions and opens possibilities for passing along a little parental wisdom in the form of stories of things we are glad we did and things we wish we didn’t.
The computer has changed everything. The transition to new friends and new experiences now starts with the acceptance letter. Kids get to know others who are going to their new school via FaceBook and MySpace. My daughter has been Instant-Messaging other kids who will be going to the same college for months. She and another Freshman have chosen each other as roommates and are deciding what they each need to bring to make the ideal dorm room. (the Apples to Apples game is at the top of the list). They’ve discovered other kids who share their interests. By the time they arrive on campus, they will already have a group of friends they are looking forward to seeing. In important ways, they have already made first steps into their lives as college students.
Freshman orientation programs take it further. Some kids think it’s un-cool to do things like an outdoor challenge week. I tell them to go anyway. It’s almost impossible to be homesick when you’re white water rafting, conquering a ropes course, or helping to clean up a river bank. Sharing fun and excitement, overcoming obstacles and/or doing a service project together helps students make friends and turn their attention to the year ahead.
Three Months to Go and Counting
The academic calendar is kind. High School graduation is in June. College won’t start until September. Those of us who are launching kids have three whole months to talk, to plan, to work on some new skills, to spend some time together, and to pack. Done well, these activities help everyone, young adult and parents, get ready for this next big change in family life.