College Prep

A+ Advice from Empty Nesters

Desiree Smock

I have mixed emotions about the phrase "empty nester." It sounds patronizing, yet it succinctly labels the complex soup of emotions parents feel when their child heads out into the "real world." My children are still in elementary school, and I cried when Andy packed for college in Toy Story 3. I wondered, is there any way to prepare ourselves to make the transition less painful and more smooth for both parents and kids? So I sought out the advice of some wise empty nesters: Kim, an antiques dealer, with two sons in college; Sally, a teacher, with two daughters out of college and a son in high school, and Lisa, a writer, with a daughter in high school and a son who's leaving soon for his freshman year of college.

What is the hardest thing about your child going to college?

Kim: Letting them go off on their own. You cross your fingers and hope that they make the right decisions. Giving them their true independence is very hard. You want them to be successful.

Lisa: Worrying about whether we've adequately prepared him— not for school, but for independence. Will he make good decisions (I didn't!), will he be disciplined enough to go to classes regularly, will he treat women with respect, will he manage his money well? Need I go on? But this is it. It's up to him. I can't remind him to do his homework, check on who he's hanging out with, and all that. 

What are the emotions?

Sally: Dropping off the first child at college is a lot like the first day you take that child to kindergarten. I cried all the way home and at least once a day for two weeks. 

K: During the first week I'd walk by my son's now VERY NEAT room, laugh and then get teary. When I was dusting photos on the piano I'd loose it, too. But week two was yahoo!!!! Less food and laundry to deal with.

How do you deal with the feelings?

L: I found it reassuring to talk to other parents and hear their stories. 

S: I finally got used to the idea of my daughter being gone and when she seemed to be doing well, I relaxed. Personally, I like to give my kids some space to grow and make mistakes. It seems as though these days parents are so involved in every aspect of their kids' lives.

How do you stay connected?

K: We had Sunday night call in/check in and emailed/texted often.

L: One of the couples [at a parent meeting sponsored by my church] who already have a son in college, and are now about to send their daughter, said they have a regular Skype appointment with their son every Sunday evening. And he really likes it because he can see familiar things in his house in the background, sees the dog walk by, etc. It's become kind of a family event. 

S: I did Skype with my daughter when she was in England for a semester and I just really wanted to know what was going on and what countries she was visiting.

How often do you visit?

K: My husband and I always went to Parent's weekend/Family weekend and a Football game later in the fall on both campuses. We would bring cases of water bottles/gatorade along— much cheaper in bulk than from the cafeteria or a vending machine.

Practical Advice

K: My sons used the train system to get home. We learned to book tickets on line: WELL in advance of holidays. Opened banks accounts in CT at a bank that was also in their campus location; linked to the accounts for deposits— what a surprise!

L: [The College's] parent website had some good advice in this area: they said to send them off with the message that you trust them, you're proud of them, and you love them. That kids who feel like their parents trust them do far better than kids who don't. I find it really hard not to say, "remember not to do this, and that, and remember when you did THAT - don't do that again...." So this was really valuable for me. I also picked up a useful book, Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years. Sort of a roadmap through the emotions, highs, lows, do's and don'ts.

What do you pack?

Check out Off to College What to Pack »

Good Viewing

Filmmaker, Doug Block's HBO Documentary, "The Kids Grow Up", brings you face to face with the realities of saying goodbye to parenting a child and hello to parenting an adult. His heart wrenching editing back and forth between footage of Lucy as a young girl and then as a college bound senior, and her empty bedroom after they've dropped her off at college. It's a humorous tearjerker with a solid message.



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