A letter to new college students, from a parent
By Daniel W. Drezner
Special to The Washington Post
Dear new college students,
Greetings and salutations! I am not an entering college student, but the proud parent of one. First off, congratulations! Going to college is a big life transition, and I am sure that you are eager to be on your way to making new friends, learning new things and living semi-independently. Which is a polite way of saying that you cannot wait until the rest of your family is not up in your grill 24/7.
After at a year plus of parents nagging prodding you about the importance of a college education, I bet they are on your last nerve. Furthermore, I bet some of you have noticed that they have been acting super-weird this summer. This was my experience a few decades ago. I did not really rebel as a teenager, but my last summer home I began to feel claustrophobic. By August, I was counting down the days until I would be on campus. I remember vowing to myself that I would remember that feeling and give my future kid more space.
More than 30 years later, I’ve been totally crowding my own child this summer. I now understand why my parents acted the way they did. If nothing else, I hope this information makes your last remaining days at home a little easier.
So here’s the thing: You are not the only one going through a life transition here. Your parents, who fed you, clothed you and sheltered you for quite some time, will no longer have to do any of these things. You would think this would be a huge honking relief, but it is surprisingly difficult to give up habits that have been developed for more than a decade.
For one thing, although you are now legally adults, let’s be honest, none of you are fully grown up. Sure, you can manage your smartphone way better than us olds. There are, however, large swaths of offline life that you have had zero responsibility for until now. Can you do laundry properly? Can you cook? I suspect many of you possess most of these skills. But I am sure there are several facets of adulting that remain beyond your comprehension. You are an adult in most but not all ways. Parents, who have borne witness to your greatest screw-ups as human beings, are petrified that you will stumble into one of these vulnerabilities once you leave for college. We can’t help it; we are hard-wired to worry that way.
If I am being honest, however, this is not the biggest source of parental weirdness. That comes from the fact that, after more than 18 years of being nurtured, molded, under-parented and overparented, you have morphed into a pretty interesting person. You can have adult conversations about art or politics or life in general. That’s amazing! Only yesterday we were consoling you because something scary happened in that Pixar movie. Now you’re consoling us because something maudlin happened in that Pixar movie.
After all that effort, just when you’re getting interesting … you leave. It seems as though parents should get a longer period of time to enjoy this more fully formed version of you. But that is not how it works. So, yes, off you go. But if it seems as though parents are asking annoying questions and are otherwise chatting you up, it is because we are dealing with our own emotional swirl. And we are cherishing those last few moments of engaging the almost-adult version of you on a daily basis.
My relationship with my parents improved significantly after I got to college. I hope the same is true for you. And I certainly hope the same is true for my own offspring.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.