A friend of mine is moving his daughter to college this week, and his understandable anxieties about the task at hand are causing me to reflect.
One of my kids spent five years as an undergrad, and the other spent four, so, all told, I moved kids into dorm rooms, apartments and/or sorority houses nine times. After a while, the job got to be somewhat old-hat, especially after each began spending summers living independently as well. But I vividly remember the first time the kids’ dad and stepparents and I moved them into their homes-away-from-home, and despite having read obsessively about best ways to handle such a thing, I was ill-prepared, emotionally or otherwise.
So I spent some time this week thinking back to those days, and remembering the all the feelings that made up each event. And I came up with a checklist of things I wish more-experienced parents had taught me – everything from the practical to the wholly emotionally driven. And while no one has all the answers, I’m hoping at least one thing on this list may serve as a practical takeaway for any first-time college mom or dad.
- Make your child’s bed. Unless she threatens to physically throw you out of the dorm room, trust me on this: There’s something about a bed made by Mom or Dad that will make an unfamiliar room feel like home. Yes, she’s 18 and can make her own bed – but she won’t. And if you don’t, come bedtime, she’ll end up sleeping on a bare mattress, covered with her bathrobe.
- If there’s a coin-operated washer and dryer in her dorm, get her a few rolls of quarters. For some reason, college-age students are incapable of remembering to keep change on hand, and there’s a real risk she’ll skip laundry for way too long and attend weeks of 8 o’clock classes in the same pair of Hello Kitty pajama pants.
- Frame a couple of small family photos – one of all of you, maybe, and one of the family pet--and leave them in her room. Be unobtrusive about this. Chances are she’ll love that you left something unexpected, and if she doesn’t want to display them, she can always hide them.
- Make plans to call her at a set time each week, or twice a week -- say, Sundays at 7, or Wednesdays at 7 and Sundays at 3. Chances are you’ll talk and text far more frequently than that, and let her know that you’re always available if she needs you. But let her know she can count on your bugging her only at certain times, and that if she wants to communicate more frequently, it’s up to her. She’ll revel in her freedom while also looking forward to talking to you.
- Buy, in advance, gift cards to some sort of nearby food establishment, such as a Subway. Give one to her and one to her roommate. When dorm food gets to be too much, they can have a little off-campus bonding time. And her roommate will think you’re awesome, which always helps.
- Consider a couple other gift cards as well – one to the nearest grocery store, and one to the nearest Target or similar department-type store. Small-amount ones are fine. She’ll be much more motivated to go out and replace Kleenex or a desk-lamp light bulb if she has quick, easy funds on hand to get it done.
- Leave her with a first-aid kit. Chances are the resident assistant on her floor will have a communal one, but get her her own, and stock it. She’ll need Band-Aids at some point, and she won’t know where to find them; ditto some sort of OTC pain reliever. Benadryl is also good to have on hand; she’ll be exposed to all kinds of weird potential allergens at college, such as her roommate’s bacon-scented candle or cat-hair-laden favorite blanket. Other good first-aid staples: hydrocortisone cream and antiseptic wipes.
- Don't believe her when she tells you she needs only one towel. As has been noted, she won’t do laundry nearly as often as you’d like her to, and chances are she also won’t hang her towel up to dry properly. Leave her with at least two or three big towels, and the same number of washcloths.
- Leave a couple little notes for her, or write her a letter and place it where she’ll see it while she’s unpacking. Social media is the best thing ever, but nothing beats handwritten communication, especially when it’s from someone special about something special. Tell her whatever you want to tell her, but add that you love her and are proud of her. Thirty-some years later, she’ll still take out that letter and read it anytime she needs a little boost. (Along the same lines: Send cards or care packages once in a while. A funny card with a $10 bill tucked inside can be a huge day-brightener.)
- Prepare for tears, even if she’s not a crier. She WILL cry. Chances are she won’t tell you she’s cried, but if she happens to cry when you’re on the phone with her, it will tear your heart out. Some people will tell you to ignore the crying, to focus on cheering her up; others will tell you to acknowledge it and talk with her about how she’s feeling. Still others will tell you that if she’s not too far away and is really upset, make a plan to visit her, or to have her come home for the weekend. Here’s the right answer: Follow your instincts. Other people don’t know your child nearly as well as you know her. Obey the little voice in your head, the one that tells you what you need to do to be able to sleep well at night.
- Be prepared, also,for the fact that she will do stupid things. She’ll stay up way too late, then decide to sleep in and skip her early class. She’ll forget the sensible eating habits you taught her and fill her D-card (or M-card or U-card or whatever her school calls it) with charges for Doritos and Mountain Dew. By all means, get a handle on things when you feel you need to – but, if you can, cut her some slack. She’s trying to figure out a lot of complicated things, and chances are pretty good she’ll eventually begin to make better choices.
- Plan to open your home to her friends, especially if you live relatively close to her school. She’ll enjoy bringing them home to meet you, and you’ll likely learn more about her life at school through those individuals. Keep in mind the friends she makes at college are much more likely than high-school friends to stay in her life long-term, so you’ll enjoy getting to know them, too.
Finally: Pat yourself on the back. You, and she, survived 18 years together, and you’re sending her to college; that means you definitely did something right.
And even better news: The best is yet to come. I promise.