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I joke that when I moved to college, I was thankful my dad actually stopped to unload my stuff. He attended college on the GI Bill, fully on his own, so the conversations we had about preparing for my own college experience were minimal. I felt I was on my own as much as he had been.
But this is a different day. The relationship we have with our children is dramatically different from what many of us experienced with our own parents. Today we are more involved in our children's lives, and many families now function like a team. We are, after all, the minivan generation, shuttling from soccer tournaments to ballet lessons to birthday parties.
This team concept of family doesn't take a break when our teens begin their college search. We offer guidance about their field of study, geographic location, tuition and financial aid, even roommate preference — each decision becoming an extension of the shared "family hope." As parents, we have a strong sense of what is important because we know this soon-to-be college student better than anyone else. That said, our commitment to making the college search a shared adventure includes learning to let go.
One of the realities of raising children is that we have been letting go from the very beginning. We let go when they began to walk, when they learned to ride a bicycle, when they started school. This process continues until we find ourselves sitting across the kitchen table from our teen with a stack of college brochures between us, wondering how we got here so quickly.
As a father and college administrator, I believe the key to letting go is found in changing the lens through which we see our kids. We need to see them for who they are: young adults on the verge of independence. It's not about literally letting go of our children, but letting go of our attachments. Think about the roles you have become attached to: confidant, adviser, personal assistant, alarm clock, nurse, ATM … the list goes on. Some of these roles will naturally begin to change as our teens prepare for college, but for our relationships with our teens to thrive, we must intentionally begin to release our hold.
To help you identify your attachments, be mindful of the ways you dialogue with your teen — beginning with the college search process and continuing with the actual college journey. Ask yourself: Am I talking with my teen about her plan or to my teen about my agenda for her? It's easy to speak from your attachments when they're born out of great hope and desire for your child to succeed — or at least not make the same mistakes you did. Potentially, though, these attachments may impede relational, emotional and spiritual growth for both of you.
I suggest sitting down with your teen to talk about the ways your relationship has changed since high school began. Then, I encourage you to compose your own lists of the ways you anticipate your relationship transitioning when she goes off to college. Talk about what you discover. I've often found that issues causing tension or disagreement are rarely related to college selection or choice of a major. They are most often related to the attachments we just don't recognize. The longer we hold on to these attachments, the more difficult and tumultuous the transition will become.
I understand that parents are not designed to easily let go; I also understand that during the last years of high school, both parents and teens can be free to pursue who they are each designed to be. I believe it is our task to love our teens well by letting go.
Just think of it this way: Your job as a parent is never over, but your job description is changing daily. For your teen to thrive in college, and for you to thrive in his absence, he must be encouraged to move toward a new sense of self-competency, believing he is capable of taking care of himself. His ability to navigate this path with you now, as you give advice and direction rather than steering the ship, is an essential part of building the confidence needed to embark on this college adventure.
Make the College Search a Shared Adventure
Preparing practically for the changes ahead
Tips to consider when beginning the college search with your teen:
- Listen to your teen's goals and his personal preferences regarding the college experience. Discuss his personal strengths and weaknesses, and your financial expectations.
Talk with other parents and college students about their experiences in choosing a college.
Stay connected with your teen's high school guidance counselor. He can offer a wealth of information, including the timeline for taking placement tests, sending college applications, requesting letters of recommendation and writing thank-you notes.
Research a variety of campus options, including small, large, private and public. Keep a journal to log the pros and cons of each school.
Visit a variety of campuses to get a feel for size, atmosphere, social environment and spiritual climate.
Encourage your teen to apply to several schools, including at least one in-state college.
Pray with and for each other — God has a plan for both of you during this season of change.
This article appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2012 by Dane Anthony. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.
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