Thursday, April 9, 2015

Conversations with your college freshmen that matter before they leave, and long after they've gone.

Me, with my unexpected pleasure of parenting
A while back, I was asked by Grown and Flown, a highly regarded parenting blog, to take part in a slideshow by expressing an unexpected pleasure of parenting. Mine was this:

I have loved and accepted my children every day of their lives. But who they have become on their own are four people I would love if I met them today.

More recently, I posted a piece about visiting our son at college. The afternoon we arrived, he told us he'd invited a "bunch of guys" over to meet us and suggested we come by at around ten for a few rounds of beer pong, then leave before the actual party started later. Ha ha.

We would use water, he added graciously.  "You don't have to actually drink beer."

It did not cross my mind to be horrified by the prospect of college juniors and seniors drinking beer at a party. It did cross my mind that we were being invited to glimpse the world he lives in now and who he is becoming.

The post was appreciated by many people who have kids in college, but not by everyone. One  reader suggested I might have used the moment as a jumping off point to talk about "drinking responsibly."

Well, that ship has sailed, but point taken. College drinking makes parents nervous, especially those about to launch first freshmen. 

Because I actually take the well being of college students (and their parents) very seriously, I will pass along a few "worked for me" tips in hopes that your own talk about drinking responsibly won't feel like one you're having with yourself.

From my own files of "wish I had," and "glad I did":

Dial down your fear and ASK.
We have launched four children, which means our first teenager, poor thing, got me at the ground floor of the learning curve where the motive for everything was to make sure nothing bad ever happened to our children. Here is where good discussions start with the words, "I just want to tell you a few things" and promptly die.

When our last child was getting ready for college, our conversations were more Q's from me, and A's from him. I had seen him affect his own success and failure in high school and knew he liked driving his own bus. We covered the gamut of college temptations but not without striking a deal: I could ask him anything. He would be honest. I could ask follow-ups. He would explain. I could not "freak out" over anything.
Be real.
Our kids stay on the rails in high school because they have seen more of their choices than they've told us about and have selected carefully.

The temptation to characterize the behavior that will surround our kids at college as foolish or stupid or beneath them is well-intentioned but guilt-producing. Teens – good ones – fall in love and have sex. Teens – good ones – get together at the beach and get drunk. Some become pregnant. Some become substance-addicted. Most do neither. Acknowledging that destructive behaviors are as much a choice of smart people as productive ones is honest. It is not giving them permission to be one of those bad teens at the beach.

Recognize who they already are 
By the time all of our kids left for school our discussions about drugs, birth control, and safety on the street were no longer about dire consequences. They were "if and when" conversations of how our kids might react in difficult situations, in context with who they were.

What might they do with the opportunities to cut loose once they didn't have to face parents in the kitchen the end of the night? What might they do to feel wanted and welcome instead of lonely and unsure? Could we agree on how they would stay safe? Would they tell me if they thought they were in trouble?" 

If early conversations are candid, they'll open the door to honest  dialog about how our kids' lives are really challenging them, so that we are not left searching their tone of voice or laugh for clues.

Do not overlook the bystander talk 
Thomas Vander Ven is the author of "Getting Wasted," which explores not if, but why kids drink to excess in college. In his interview with, he discusses the VERY important  role of "bystander," which  any college student should be prepared to assume.

A discussion with college freshmen about how they must look out for others is as important as those about how they will govern themselves. Not every female who drinks at a party will become a sexual victim. Not every male will become an alcoholic. But every college kid at a party is a bystander, and our kids should know when to intervene, to call 911 if someone is dangerously high, to notice when someone is alone and too drunk at a party. High school kids don't turn in their friends – let the parents deal with that – but in college, "telling" could save a life. 

Say that.

Recognize who they have become.
We know our new freshmen, and they know themselves, in context with a life that will change completely come fall. They will abandon some behaviors, experiment with others, and probably develop a hard-won appreciation for moderation.

As Vander Ven points out, when they're in their careers, and working late all the time, and coming home exhausted, they're probably not going to get together in someone's room to get hammered.

Those who are still on the rails three years after leaving home are there because they've continued to assess their choices in the quiet of their own minds. They have earned their own respect. And self-respect is delicious and habit-forming.

Never turn down an invitation to visit their world.
Accept. If you are lucky enough to have been invited to a water-pong party, go. You may be impressed to discover that your child and his friends have become their own family with assignments for clean-up duty, and house rules about how to host others safely and behave themselves. 

If you are, say so. It means a lot to them, and is the best report card you can hope for.


  1. I love this, Susan. Our children are a reflection of not only us and the people they surround themselves with but of themselves. We give them what they need (hopefully!) and then set them out into the world. The beer pong? I remembered you writing about that and I thought how marvelous that you were invited to the party! Yes, we had to take every opportunity to carefully talk to them about the important things. The rest is really up to them. Ah, being a parent never stops. (My 84 y/o mother is still telling me that!) Well done, Susan, on all counts.

  2. Cathy, thank you so much for the lovely words and thoughts about these wonderful times. I am not kidding when I say my children taught me most of what I know about parenting.

  3. Susan this is so well thought out and excellent advice but after 4 kids I guess that's why you are the expert! If parents would listen to this advice so many heartaches could be avoided...on both sides of the conversation!

    1. Hi Rena, and thank you for visiting. I am the first one to admit I could have been more "listening" than "talking" at the beginning, but as I've told my kids, we're no better at all this letting go than they are at being free. We all come back around though, I think.

  4. Oh my, such thoughtful sentiments. I hope I can be as clear-headed and thoughtful when my turn comes in just a few short years. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Hi Tara. Thank you for commenting. If your experience is like mine has been, you'll worry about your mistakes until your kids mock you for them and then you'll know: you didn't screw up that badly.

  6. Hi Susan

    I have four kids. My oldest is the "brain", very smart, everyone in my family just knew he would be successful, etc. He told me in his senior year of HS that he didn't want to sit behind a desk, at a job or at college. Maybe in the future, but not now. He joined the Navy as an electrician. He LOVES it, and is thinking about making it a career. He says maybe he will do college on the GI bill some day, but now he's happy DOING THINGS, being outside and getting his hands dirty. And because he's happy, I'm happy. There's nothing worse than having a job you hate. And my son loves his job.

    My other kids are still in high school, so their times are coming. But what I've learned from #1 is so long as they're happy, I've done my job.

    Your have great insight, and your kids sound wonderful. The advice you wrote that I like best, is to accept invitations to visit their world. My son's Navy buddies ALWAYS treat me like a lady, call me ma'am. It's a nice change =)

  7. Hi Susan - you wonderful mom you. I have four kids too. Beer pong, hey? I remember being asked if I'd like to go sit on the roof of the house my son lived in with four other college students because 'that's what they did' in the evening - in a dilapidated house in a very nice neighbourhood where NO one else set on their roofs. But I'll always remember sitting with those boys as the sun set, seeing the city view that the neighbours most certainly missed, and listening to the guys easy dialogue. (I blog at and belong to The Women of Midlife - don't know why my name isn't showing up but excited to follow your blog.)

    April 23, 2015 at 11:58 AM