Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Life Lessons for My Son Before He Leaves for College

How to navigate the journey of life.

Key points

  • Learn how to become aware and more open toward your thoughts and feelings.
  • Find the right people for you who will help you bring your values into the world.
  • Practice kindness, to both yourself and others, as you grow into the person you want to be.
Helena Lopes/Pexels
Source: Helena Lopes/Pexels

Over the last few months, my son, my wife, and I have visited universities across the country to help find the right one for him. And after a long and arduous search, he has finally chosen the one he wants, making him soon leave our home and enter the next exciting chapter of his life. This means more independence for him, but also more worrying for my wife and me (I have four kids and this will be the first time my house will be fully child-free in 55 years – yes, really; and this is Jacque’s only child so it’s darn punchy there too!).

Despite how much we try to prepare our children, there are certain lessons they will have to learn by themselves. And many of those lessons will only come when they have to make their own choices, carry their own responsibilities, and stand on their own feet. Yes, young adults often use college as an opportunity to challenge their personal limits through partying and drinking, but they also get the freedom to discover themselves, figure out who they are outside of their family, and learn new skills and a better understanding to deal with the inevitable ups-and-downs of life.

I recently read an interesting study by a team of researchers from the University of Surrey, in which they asked young adults in their final year in college what life lessons they would give to their younger selves. I found the answers so intriguing that it inspired me to write this very post, using it as a touchstone.

When my son is far away from home, I hope he will have experiences that let him grow as a person, and that he remembers these life lessons, as I would tell them to any teenager and young adult about to embark on the next chapter of their life.

Lesson 1: Listen to Your Gut

When you’re in a new environment, surrounded by people you hardly know, it’s easy to let yourself be swayed by the moods and choices of others. You might feel compelled to go along with what others expect of you, or to go along with what you think they expect of you. Often that is in an effort to fit in, to be liked, and to become part of “the inner circle.” While this is normal and natural, make sure to slow down and check in with yourself. Let go of fear and listen to your deeper feelings. Assume your own experience is valid and your deepest feelings matter. Your gut sense can tell you a lot about whether you are moving in a helpful direction or whether you are making choices that don’t really serve you. Learn to listen to your gut.

Lesson 2: Find Your People

You will meet many different people in life, not all of whom will be right for you. Some will be more attuned to your personality and values, some may be more respectful of your needs and boundaries, and some may simply laugh a little bit louder when you’re telling silly jokes and stories. Not everyone has to like you, and neither do you need to like everyone. But be careful of the shiny object: just because someone likes you does not mean they belong in your life. Boy did I have to learn that lesson! My handsome boy, being human fly paper is not the same as making wise choices in your intimate relationships. My smart boy, the same is true of your intellectual and professional colleagues. What matters is that you find the right people for you, the ones you can confide in, and share your victories but also your challenges with. The people who share your values and are treating themselves and others with kindness and respect. And if the people in your corner currently do not feel safe enough, it’s okay to keep looking.

Lesson 3: Learn to Say “No” So You Can Say “Yes!”

While we’re talking about finding people who respect your boundaries, it’s also imperative for you to learn to do so yourself. This means a) knowing what those boundaries are, and then b) enforcing said boundaries by saying “no” and meaning it. Both of those abilities can be tricky, and they remain so unless you start practicing them. Listening to your gut will tell you more about your needs (see lesson #1), and the right people will be likelier to respect them (see lesson #2). Learn to say “no” when you mean it. If someone wants to ride on your coattails in class but fails to contribute, just say “no.” If someone wants to lure you into needless drama, same thing. Then as you learn that you can trust yourself to set healthy limits, use that foundation to say “yes” and mean it. Try new things. Go new places. Form new relationships. Commit to bold projects. Have fun. And always keep your word. If you have to stay up all night to meet a promise to finish a project, do it! In the end, keeping your work and knowing how to set limits will create the safety you need to learn to be more fully YOU and to say “yes” to life.

Lesson 4: Let Go of Labels

In an effort to better understand ourselves and the world around us, we use all types of labels. It begins from the moment we start using words, and eventually we define ourselves with those words, describing ourselves as “ambitious” or “intelligent” or some other adjective. While this is normal, it can also lead us into a trap, where we mistake ourselves for those words, and subsequently only allow ourselves to exist within them. The truth is, who you are is so much more than any label could ever hope to describe. Learn to let go of labels and to live with ambiguity as you explore who and how you want to be in the world. Let this 75-year-old man give you a tiny bit of guidance: it’s an adventure of discovery you will never fully finish.

Lesson 5: Be Kind to Yourself and Others

You will make mistakes, big ones even. And some of those mistakes will weigh heavily on your mind, and might make you feel guilty about what you did. Guilt is not your enemy – if you can learn the lessons that mistakes provide. Apologize. Correct the error. Try again. And when in doubt, be honest. And if shame shows up and starts to whisper in your ear about who you are, respectfully decline the mind’s invitation to make this about you being another negative label (bad, unlovable, evil, untrustworthy, etc.). Bull. Guilt is like a poke in the back while you are running a race. Buying into shame is like cutting yourself off at the knees instead. Hard to run that way. Mistakes, even big ones, are part of being human. In all situations in life, one thing remains true: you are better off meeting your own struggle with kindness, compassion, and softened self-judgment – turning your attention toward the qualities you want to put into the world, rather than beating yourself about the head and ears, which only breeds fear and self-loathing. Self-acceptance and self-compassion don’t mean that you gloss over your mess-ups, or that you pretend they don’t exist. Kindness can mean swallowing a bit of bitter medicine and then returning to life with a values-based aspirational mindset as you aspire to grow. Make sure to do it all from a place of caring and love. Be kind to yourself and others.


There is more to be said, much more in fact than would ever fit inside a short post. Still, these lessons I believe are critical for young adults (and, spoiler alert, they remain important for your entire life). Learn how to become aware and more open toward your thoughts and feelings; to find the right people for you who will help you bring your values into the world; to act on what is important to you; and to realize that you’re not the content of your thoughts or labels. And finally, practicing kindness – to both yourself and others – as you grow into the kind of person you deeply want to be.

Life is a journey. You are already on it.

And just to my boy: go for it, son. I’m proud of you.


Jane Ogden, Amel Boukabous, Emily Ford, Maggie Pedrosa & Clara Roca Pintor (2024) ‘Dear younger self…’: using a photograph think-aloud method to explore the lessons university students would pass on to their teenage selves, Cogent Psychology, 11:1, 2352204, DOI: 10.1080/23311908.2024.2352204

More from Steven C. Hayes Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today