Recently, Elon held it's two-day spring orientation for "incoming freshman" as they are called. I took Sam. There, we joined a hundred or so other high school seniors who meandered, phones in hand, at the side of their parents while they scanned the surroundings for information: where to go, what to wear, how to be. Sam reached the end of this two-day trailer of his future with high expectations which dove-tailed nicely with my own. All of Sam's siblings have marched into this same forest of unknowns and thank you God, have each emerged with maturity, wisdom and all of their limbs.
In the spirit of been-there-done-that, I didn't expect to be impressed with the advice offered by Elon faculty to incoming parents. Indeed, after the Assistant Dean of Students began with "These are days of hope and fear," I began to think about where to eat.
But the message became unique with two words at its center that can make the difference between success and failure in any new environment (and for anyone). They are: at first.
For better or worse, nothing remains as it is, "at first."
Because this parallels my philosophy of "right now," (quick review: Everything, good or bad, is just right now) and because the advice was coming from a person of obvious status, and because it was delivered with a song of a southern accent, I paid attention.
"You hope they'll catch on fire, find their perfect major, perfect internship, perfect friends. They will," said the speaker, "but not at first."
"You fear they'll be lonely, homesick, overwhelmed, and awkward. They will," she continued. "At first."
"At first, they will call," said the speaker. "You will hear the loneliness, the uncertainty. They may cry. They won't know what to do. Then they will hang up. One of you will feel worlds better. It won't be you."
The requisite "letting go" speech came next and by now I expected to be enlightened. I was.
For a parent, said the speaker, the hardest thing about early contact with a child who has just left for college, is hearing the struggle in their voice over an experience they didn't ask for.
"Give your child their mistakes," was her advice, reminding us that it is our mistakes rather than our success that we learn from. Every mistake we fix for them, she added, robs them of a consequence which might have yielded important information to a successful life.
The parting advice: "Give your child their lives. When you get that call, listen to their woe until they've finished speaking. And then don't board a plane, or drive to the campus, or do anything else to rescue them. Ask, 'And what will you do about that?'"
This matters. Listening is easier said than done, and many people think they're listening when they're really waiting for a turn to speak. I've done both. Real listening generates a spontaneous, heartfelt response, not a planned one. There isn't better advice for the parent of an outbound high school senior, anywhere. Don't rescue. Just listen.
It strikes me that our children learn to grow up the way we learn how to parent: with high expectations and with courage to face the experiences they didn't ask for. Giving ourselves advice, and then following it, is a direct route to confidence.
Sam and the rest of those incoming freshman will fill their own libraries with volumes of lessons learned if they're allowed to. Someday, they will accompany our grandchildren to an orientation, and want to leave them with a few choice selections from those shelves. Their gracious children will accept them politely, find a place for them where they won't be in the way, and not look at them again.