Out of the Nest

Tips for Successfully Launching Your Kids into College

Rhett Smith

Photo by Sandi Gunnett.

In July I posted a question on Twitter and Facebook asking people what kinds of tips they had for parents sending their kids off to college for the first time.  So many great ideas were submitted that I began to wonder what it would look like if there were a contraption (almost like a wordle) that would allow me to input all of the ideas so that some of the themes would emerge in the process.  If that were possible, then these are some of the themes that you would see:

give space…

don’t be clingy…

let them fail…

clearly communicate expectations…

be both firm and loving…

don’t let them come home every weekend…

let your students handle their own problems and don’t call the school on your student’s behalf…

teach them financial responsibility…

don’t let them use credit cards…

send care packages…

let them wrestle with, process, and own their own faith…

the first holiday they come home—Thanksgiving—is a big deal…

oh, and by the way, be prepared to give lots of space and grace that Thanksgiving weekend…

most importantly, pray for them.

I was amazed at the wide variety of people who participated in giving input.  There were former college students, college admission counselors, college chaplains, college pastors, therapists and parents.  This was a great group of people to glean wisdom from.  I’ve also had the privilege of being involved in the lives of college students over the last 14 years in a variety of roles: college admission counselor, college pastor, and now therapist.  And in those roles I’ve also worked closely with the parents of these students. 

So I began to wonder myself: What kinds of advice would I give parents who are sending their kids off to college for the first time?

It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine why this is such an important topic.  I remember a scene from my first year of college 17 years ago so vividly, it’s almost as if it happened yesterday. 

On my first holiday home from college I walked in the front door of our family home at 5 a.m. and stood there wondering what my dad was doing sitting in the living room chair facing the front door.  What I found out in that moment is that my dad was sitting in that chair wondering what I was doing walking in the front door at 5 a.m.  You see, it was Christmas break and I had come home to stay after being away at college.  When I went out that night, I assumed I had no curfew since I didn’t have one at college.  Meanwhile, my dad assumed I still had a curfew just like when I had lived at home in high school.

This was a case of differing expectations between parent and student coupled with a lack of clear communication.  We were able to talk through those differing expectations that early morning before I went to bed, but it has always been a reminder of the tenuous nature of the parent-college student relationship during that first year.

Sending your kid off to college for the first time is both exciting and terrifying.  The transition from parenting a high school senior to parenting a college freshman is a unique one.  It’s an experience that is fraught with a wide array of first-time situations that can leave even the most seasoned parent with a fair amount of anxiety.

But as you read the below tips that I hope will be helpful in preparing you for the journey, keep two things in mind:

First, in reality, there are going to be some things that you have not prepared your incoming college freshman for.  That is just the nature of this transition, especially for parents navigating this stage of their kid’s life for the first time.  There will be some things that you did a great job talking with your kids about, and there will be some things that were neglected.  Don’t let your anxiety over what you didn’t talk to them about paralyze you for future conversations.

Second, you need to approach your kid’s transition into college as an opportunity for ongoing conversations that take place not only in college but throughout life.  This is not a one-time talk and then you’re done.  It’s never too late to create and take advantage of opportunities to talk with your kids as they too try to navigate this transition in their life.

Keeping these two things in my mind, there are at least four key areas that are important for parents to think through:

Key Area #1: Explore and Clarify Boundaries

A boundary simply lets someone know where they begin and end in relationship to another person.  As your kid ventures off to college for the first time, one of the key questions that they will be continually asking themselves is “What can I and can’t I do?”  They are out of the home seeking independence, yet more than likely they are very much dependent upon you for a variety of things (like emotional and financial support).

The college transition provides a good opportunity for parents to let their kids explore a variety of boundaries such as curfew, major/minor options, vocational choices, peer group, and traveling. Below are a few tips for navigating boundaries:

Tip: When you drop your kid off at college, don’t stick around.  Leave them so that they can begin the process of making connections with those students around them.  In fact, some colleges now have “parent bouncers” 1 http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/1/]] to force parents away from freshman orientation so that kids can be by themselves.

Tip: An observation that has been made in some college ministry circles is that both parents and college kids should monitor the frequency of visits home or to the college campus to visit one another. The question being raised is if a student is continually going home visiting parents/friends, or a parent is continually visiting the campus, can it inhibit a student from properly putting down roots and establishing healthy connections that will help them feel at home in college?

Tip: Clarify expectations about rules (i.e. curfew, chores) when your child is home for the weekend or holiday. 2   I recommend that parents have a conversation and mutually establish these expectations with their college kid prior to the first visit home.

Tip: By all means communicate with your kids via the phone, text messaging, and Facebook. But don’t let that communication become something that either of you become dependent upon.  College is a great place for your kid to begin the process of establishing healthy relationships with peers who can become a new support network. 3

Key Area #2: Encourage and Let Them Explore Their Own Faith

This is probably one of the toughest areas for Christian parents.  A parent who is able to self-soothe their own anxiety during this process provides a huge gift for their kid as they give them the freedom to explore their own faith and make their own choices.

It is crucial that an incoming freshman get connected to a church or campus ministry within the first month of school, otherwise they are unlikely to get involved until their junior or senior year, if at all. The FYI College Transition Project research found that decisions made about ministry involvement in the first two weeks set the trajectory for the next few years. The same was true of decisions about partying.  In my experience as a college pastor, college students who have healthy relationships and a faith that provides a strong sense of identity and hope show stronger signs of thriving and resilience during their college careers.

Tip: During high school, encourage your kid to check out college/church ministries when visiting college campuses.  Too many parents encourage their kids to only focus on areas like academics, Greek life, intramurals, social life and housing, while completely ignoring the spiritual aspect of this transition.

Tip: As students explore their faith, let them ask questions and express doubt without judgment.  Give your student the freedom to journey through their faith without the expectation that they have the answers to the questions that you want them to have. 

Tip: On occasion communicate to your kids (verbally and in written form) some of the unique gifts and strengths that God has given them.  Helping them identify and relate to some of these things can help them strengthen their connection with God.

Tip: Daily pray for your kid. Periodically ask your child how you can be praying for them.  This can be a powerful reminder to both of you that you are depending on God’s power—not your own or theirs—to sustain their faith across this transition.

Key Area #3: Finances, Budgets and Credit Cards

I was 18 years old when I first came across an American Express representative sitting at an information booth in our campus commons area.  I walked away with my first credit card that day, and began racking up the debt that would take me a long, long time to pay back. 

Even if you have been teaching your kid all along about being financially responsible, college life can often be very different as new temptations to spend money become more readily available.

Tip: Discuss and set clear expectations with your kid about what you (the parent) and they (the student) are responsible for paying.  Who is paying rent? Gas? Car insurance? Food? Entertainment? Clothes? Trips?

Tip: Have very frank and open discussions with your kids about the use of credit cards. 4   Do you want them to have a credit card?  What about just using a debit card?  Many students begin the process of piling up credit card debt in college that takes years to repay. Help them make wise choices early.

Tip: Be realistic as a family about what can be afforded in terms of college.  Sometimes going to the “best” school that costs $60,000 a year may not be the best option.  Explore other ideas like junior college, tech schools, or working during college to prevent incurring unmanageable amounts of student loan debt.

Tip: Help your student develop and implement a healthy working budget that will keep them financially accountable during college.

Key Area #4: Let Them Fail…and Succeed

At some point (multiple points actually) during your kid’s college career they are going to make mistakes and fail.  It will be these mistakes and failures that will provide rich opportunities for them to learn from and hopefully grow in the process. 

It is hard to watch your kid fail, but resist the urge to swoop in and rescue them in the process.

Tip: By all means, do not intervene on their behalf at school by calling a faculty member or school administrator about their grades or the trouble they may have gotten into.  And do not intervene in their social relationships, such as trying to problem-solve an argument between your son or daughter and their friends.

Tip: A bad grade or a failed class is not the end of the world.  Let it be an opportunity for them to suffer the consequences and take responsibility for it. Then talk together about what they may have learned for next time from the failure.

Tip: Remember that this is their life, not yours.  Therefore, give them the freedom to explore various academic and career options, even if that journey includes stumbling along the way.

College is a four-year (or maybe five- or six-year) journey that is going to be filled with plenty of ups and downs.  So it’s important that you remember that this is a process by which everyone (parents and kids) are being challenged, making mistakes, succeeding, celebrating…and hopefully all growing and being transformed in the process.

Action Points

  • Sit down with your college kid before he or she leaves for school and begin a conversation about evolving expectations especially in that first year.  For example, parents and kids can establish the amount of times they may connect on the phone or online during the week with one another.  Or you might talk about the first visit home for a student, or the first visit to the campus for the parents.  What kinds of expectations are there for that initial visit?
  • Offer your attendance and assistance to your kids during that initial parent weekend or move-in.  But let the kid determine how much or how little they want you to be involved, if at all, on those days.
  • Find some symbol or ritual to help you and your kids mark this transition into college.  For example, you could plan a family trip, write an encouraging letter/story to your kids talking about this transition, or could help celebrate the transition with a nice dinner or a large family barbecue.  Be creative!
  • Share this article with an adult friend who has already sent kids away to college, and ask them to meet with you over lunch to talk about what they learned along the way that might be helpful to you as you face this transition. Then ask them to pray for you through the coming months.

  1. “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.”  The Atlantic Magazine.  July/August 2011.
  2. University Parent.  Home for the Holidays: Surviving your College Student's Stay. http://www.universityparent.com/2008/09/08/home-for-the-holidays-surviving-your-college-students-stay July .25, 2011.
  3. I think a good book to start thinking through boundaries and expectations is Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book Boundaries.  It is a simple read that does a great job of helping the reader really understand what healthy boundaries may look like. Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. When To Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.
  4. See The Secret Alliance: College and Credit Cardshttp://www.daveramsey.com.  10/20/2010. ] ]http://www.daveramsey.com/article/the-secret-alliance-colleges-and-credit-cards/lifeandmoney_college/
Published Aug 14, 2011
Rhett Smith

Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in private practice at Auxano Counseling in Plano, TX. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and his latest book, What it Means to be a Man: God's Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (MDIV, MSMFT) and lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two kids. You can read more about Rhett's work and connect with him at www.rhettsmith.com

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