Read an Excerpt
Summer of Anticipation
It's really happened: Your kid is about to graduate from high school, and you're looking forward to the next big step with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. Even though at times you wondered whether your family would survive the high school years the phone calls at all hours, the clothes and shoes scattered through the house, the defiant staying out all night, and the frequent withering judgment that "you don't understand" you're likely to feel a bit choked up as the diplomas are handed out. It seems like only yesterday that this kid started kindergarten, and trite though it sounds, you wonder where the years have flown.
Emotional Changes for Everyone
Like many parents, you may have found that your relationship with your college-bound child began to change as early as the second half of his senior year in high school.
My son got his first college acceptance in February, and all of a sudden he was transformed. It was partly relief he felt, At least someone wants me; I won't be rejected everywhere. He became much more pleasant to be around, more responsible about a lot of things. He actually sat down and talked with us once in a while.
Lots of kids seem suddenly more grown-up at this point, and there are good reasons for it. They can drive, they're at the top of the high school ladder, they probably know where they're going next year, and they're becoming aware that their lives from now on will be quite different from before. The end of high school represents the end of an erafor a child, the end of a particular way of living with others in a family in many ways, the end of childhood.
Parents, of course, know that it's not really the end of childhood; there's still a long road ahead of gradually diminishing dependence, both emotional and financial. And they know, too, that change is necessary: Children have to grow up, and in their calmer moments parents don't actually want to treat an eighteen-year-old the way they treated a toddler. But knowing it has to happen doesn't always make it easy to accept.
So, as the names are called out at high school commencement, you may be anxious as well as proud. If this is the first child you're sending to college, you may feel you have no idea what to expect or how to prepare. Even if you've already been through it, the experience is different each time.
The first time is the hardest, but in some ways I was more ready for my older daughter to leave. She was more difficult with me all along. She started to separate in January; by September I knew it was time for her to move on. I was actuallymore upset about my younger daughter leaving. I guess I saw her as less prepared, just because she was younger. She only began to separate from us a couple of weeks before she went to college, and I wondered if she was ready for the whole thing.The summer before your kid's first year of college can be pretty hard for everyone. The reality sinks in: In just a few weeks you'll be sending your child into a new environment, a new stage of her life. Even if she'll be living at home and commuting to college, her life, and yours, will be different from the way it was while she was in high school. And if she's going away to school, she'll be out of your house and on her own in a way she hasn't been before.
Looking this prospect in the face makes you realize you're getting older old enough to have a child in college, which marks a new stage in your life as well as your child's. For some parents this is a liberating realization; they look forward to having more time and freedom to pursue their own interests or move in a new career direction. For others it can be a bit frightening; if their lives have revolved around their role as parents, they foresee the loss of their emotional focus and perhaps of a network of established social relationships connected with their child's school and friends. Either way, the impending changes can create tension as you begin to look at your family from a different perspective.
I planned to go back to school as soon as my son left for college, to fulfill an old ambition of becoming a landscape designer. I thought it would be good for me to have something to throw myself into so I wouldn't feel at loose ends. But I was nervous about it all summer and so distracted that I probably didn't give him the attention he needed. Actually, I don't remember much about what the summer was like.Whatever their plans, or lack thereof, for the fall, lots of parents find that this precollege summer slips by much too fast. Before they know it, it's July: Labor Day and college orientation week seem just around the corner. Many feel an urgent need to make this last summer of childhood perfect quality time in every way.
My daughter was home all summer, and it was really important to me that everything be special and memorable for her. I envisioned lots of family dinners and barbecues with everybody full of warmth and good feelings, and I planned to have all these quiet heart-to-heart talks with her, maybe on long walks in the park. I just kept wanting to fill her up with good advice so she'd be able to make the transition smoothly. And I guess I was hoping to reinforce the family bonds before she left so she wouldn't forget us.It sounds great, but don't count on it. Things don't often work out quite this ideally. Most kids are extremely nervous before they set off to college, and their nervousness comes out in different ways, not all of which are attractive. Many seem to slide back to an earlier stage; it's as if their fears about the future make them want to pull the cocoon of childhood up over their heads again. They refuse to talk or even think about college, and they resist everything that might force them to acknowledge it as an impending reality such as packing, choosing courses, even sending in required forms about mundane topics like meal plans. They're irritable or sullen, snapping when spoken, to or entirely uncommunicative.
This behavior is hard to live with, and parents feel frustrated and worried: Will this child, who can't even deal with the preliminary steps, be able to cope with college life?