Letting Go of College Kids

What seems like an adventure for your child is often a loss for parents

Posted Aug 31, 2013

That fateful day has arrived. You drive up to the college campus. You help your son or daughter set up their dorm room and then they eagerly run off and wave goodbye. To them it is a new adventure, one they have dreamed of for years. But, you are filled with dread and anxiety and saying to yourself “Is he ready?” “Am I ready?” To answer these important questions, I consulted with my very wise colleague, Dr. Roy Bullock. Roy gave the Letting Go Lecture to parents at college orientation for 20 years. Here are some things he told me.

First, pat yourself on the back for getting them this far. If they have been accepted to college, you have already been successful. When they were born, they were defenseless. They couldn’t feed themselves and would have died without you. They were completely dependent on you. But, they are no longer dependent children. If your child can get around in the world without you, then you have succeeded. Every parent’s goal is to make themselves obsolete.

As a parent, you have invested nearly two decades of your time, money and love in this young person. It is natural to wonder if they’ll be OK, if they’ll make it in the world. Remember, you have taught them all you can, even though they still have a lot to learn. And, you deserve some credit. Pat yourself on the back.

To me, I think of young adults as baby foals with wobbly legs. They are just learning to walk and they will fall down. They even have a right to fall down. Only by falling down and picking themselves up, can they learn. I remember holding my precious infant in my arms and wishing that I could magically implant in him all the mistakes I had made so that he could avoid them. If he was a second generation airplane, I could improve on the design. But, he is not and each new generation has to reinvent themselves. They have a right to make their own mistakes. As Roy says, “Life is a stern teacher. You get the test first and the lesson later.”

Going off to college is a rite of passage. According to Joseph Campbell, mythology and rite supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward (Campbell, 1949). Every college student is a hero. “The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is presented by separation-initiation- return.” The hero leaves the familiar (separation), ventures into the unknown (initiation), and returns victorious (return). This myth crosses culture and time. Just as Moses left his people, climbed Mt. Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, and returned to his people; your child will leave home and community, seek danger and adventure, and return an adult. It is the hero myth. It is initiation into adulthood.

If our child is on a hero journey, so are we. But ours is slightly different. While they are being initiated into society, we are being freed. Campbell compares the lifespan to loading the camel. During the first half of life, we load the camel. We pile on the baggage of society: rules, expectations, obligations. But during the second half of our lives, we unload the camel and society’s baggage. We unload ourselves of society’s rules and obligations. We lighten our loads. Our children are piling on the baggage and we are taking it off. We are getting lighter.

Your child is making a transition from adolescence to adulthood. And, it is a bumpy road to adulthood but college is a relatively safe place to grow up. Your child no longer needs you as truant officer or CEO of their life. They need you as a friend. If you are fortunate, after college they will return as your friend. I am reminded of that quote attributed to Mark Twain, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

If your child is making a transition, so are you. You will be a parent your whole life but your role changes. You change from a benevolent despot to a friend. The despot makes the rules and enforces them. The friend listens. The friend is available for consultation and support. Don’t give unsolicited advice, Roy says. Let your son or daughter seek you out. If you intervene too much in their lives, they will resent you and avoid you. Your child is changing and so are you.

Turn your energy to yourself. Have fun. Remember all those things you always wanted to do but didn’t have time for? Now you have time for neglected hobbies, old friends, and new adventures. Now, it’s your turn. You’ve paid the price of parenthood, you did your best, and now you are free. You owe it to your kids to stay alive- healthy and vital.

Letting go is the most benevolent thing you can do. And, it is not easy. It takes self-discipline. Roy told me about a cartoon he remembered. There was a young man dressed in a cap and gown at graduation. He was staring down at the world from outer space. He said to the world, “I have my A.B.” And the world replied, “Stay with me and I’ll teach the rest of the alphabet.” The point is: they still have a lot to learn. But, you have taught them as much as you can. Let them go.

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books.