When your child goes off to college, they need you

This post is by Syler Thomas.

I’m wrapping up a series on preparing for college, in light of my new book Game Plan: Practical Wisdom for the College Experience (co-written by Nic Gibson, foreword by Scot McKnight). This is a book nine years in the making, begun when Nic and I were working together in a high school ministry that I still run. The book is filled with just what the subtitle says: practical wisdom, with chapters on dating, temptation (featuring my take on Screwtape as demon to a college student), integrating your faith and your major, and much more. You can find out more about it at www.gameplan4college.com, which also includes a link to a “Senior Retreat” curriculum for youth pastors.

I close today with some advice for parents and students. If you are a parent who is sending a child off to college for the first time, you have a significant role to play. While your kids are spreading their wings, they’re also going to need you. Many parents tell me that they once had this idea that they’d be “done” once their kids left for college. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid being the “helicopter” parent, but the college years are often when you will find yourself growing closer to your kids than ever. Resist the urge to call them every day, but check in when you can. Let them know that you care about their well-being and make sure you’re there when they do want to check in.

If you’re a student, all I can say is that college was when my faith exploded. It breaks my heart to see so many students putting their faith on hold at a time when it could be growing. College is about self-discovery, and can be about extraordinary God-discovery as well. My final year at DePaul (in the Theatre program) I had an assignment for voice class where I was to choose something to perform. I chose Philippians 3:4-14, which is still one of my favorite passages in Scripture.  It ends this way:

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

That was my intention in college and the years in between haven’t always been easy but by God’s grace, it is still my intention now. May we all keep pressing on.

Do you have any advice to add?

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  • RJS

    Nice post. I never thought I’d be done when they went to college, getting them through college is part of the responsibility. Things change, the relationship changes … but are we ever done? Completely?

    For us – we got an unlimited texting plan for all our phones. This is the best way to stay in touch, or so we found. Occasional calls and e-mails, but more often short texts.

  • Ellen

    Of course our college aged kids still need us. But they need us in a very different role than when they were younger. They go not need up be managed or instructed. Hopefully, you’ve established enough trust in relationship that they can come to you with significant life shifts and decisions. But the “helicopter parent” is a serious, serious issue. In this culture of fear, Christian kids in particular are over-managed and as a result, are emotionally and psychologically stunted, keeping them from being able to work through normal developmental tasks towards healthy adult identity and intimacy. More kids are confused about sexual identity as a result as well. They sinpky ats mir allowed to grow, maje mistakes and develop. I counsel these families all the time- its a BIG problem. Over protective, paranoid, controlling parents are harming their kids.

  • gingoro

    “If you are a parent who is sending a child off to college for the first time, you have a significant role to play. While your kids are spreading their wings, they’re also going to need you.”

    Sorry this makes me laugh which is better than weeping, the other option. At 15 I flew from Addis Ababa to Khartoum to Athens overnight, to Rome for a few days, to London for a week and then on to somewhere in Scotland and then to Toronto. I learned to fend for myself in high school. Thank God I got involved in IVCF and it’s Canadian high school counterpart. I had little need for my parents by the time I went to university having been away from home most of the time since kindergarten. Those doing “God’s” work seem free to abuse their kids.

  • Lee

    It was so revealing to read the letters I wrote to my parents when I struggled with new experiences in college. Thankfully, they were wise in understanding without trying to fix my life. Mom bundled the notes up for me to find years later and I did the same with my daughter’s emails.

    Sometimes we need to be reminded of our baseline when we wonder if we’re making any progress. Many times all we need is a loving listener who prays on our behalf but we can trust won’t take any further action.

  • Scott Courey

    Thanks for this post. My wife and I have 6 children: 1 married, 3 in college and 2 in HS. I work at a small Christian University so we are smack in the middle of this issue! The Christian Parenting Culture tricks us with 2 lies: 1) Your parenting report card (terrible term I know) comes out when your kids turns 18. 2) Christian parenting books will tell you how to get an A (meaning your child goes to a good college and stayed in youth group).
    And yet what we have found is that some of the most crucial, treacherous, but potentially glorious parenting happens when your kids are between 18 and 22. Here’s the rub: Before they leave home you are automatically the parent, but when they leave you are only a parent by invitation. Parenting from 14 to 18 is about building a relationship that your child will chose to stay in after they leave (which sometimes requires letting them get the heck out of Dodge!).
    Let’s build communities as parents where we can admit that we’re often afraid, insecure and wounded by our children and are terribly anxious about their futures. In such community we can become more humbled, dependent sons and daughters of the One to whom we must entrust our children as they enter the world alone, full of hopes, dreams, and, naive solutions and failures. Then, if and when they return to us for help, they will learn that we have been neither forgetting about them nor controlling them, but entrusting them daily to this remarkable Wise, Faithful Lover of their soul. And they’ll want sum more a dat kinda God.