What To Do When Your Child (Who Isn’t A Child Anymore So Stop Calling Her That) Goes Off To College


A piece by Michelle Herman

1. Don’t call her. Ever.

You may send a text — but only a short one, and no more than once every three days. (And if you don’t hear back — and you might not hear back — don’t send another text demanding to know why you haven’t heard back.)

2. Texts should never be along the lines of “Why haven’t you called?” or “Are you ALL RIGHT?” or “PLEASE CALL ASAP.”

… Unless someone is dying, but even then, for the love of God, don’t write in ALL CAPS. “Love you!” is permissible. A photo of the dog is also permissible, without comment. Important news from home? Sure. But keep it brief, and make sure it’s something she would actually want to know (i.e., important to her, too).

3. Don’t demand that she call you on any kind of regular schedule.

Even if all the other parents you know (or, like, you’ve read about or seen in the movies) get a call every Sunday at 2PM, or every single night at 6PM, or on the first and third Thursday of every month at 4:30PM . . . or between every single class every single day (yes, I have heard of this, but such tales may well be apocryphal), DON’T DEMAND IT OF YOUR OWN KID. (See how that works? I was yelling at you there. Don’t yell at your kid, in texts or emails. [But also see #8 below, re emailing.])

Don’t even suggest calls on a regular schedule, if you know what’s good for you. (I did, and I was sorry. Freshman Grace said, “Well, sure, I could call you once a week and we could have a meaningless exchange for a few minutes, which is probably all the time I’d have to talk anyway, a kind of ‘how are you/yeah, my classes are fine/how’re yours?’ conversation, but we’ve never had that kind of relationship and I don’t want to start having it now.” And very cleverly, I thought, she added that she heard the kids’ sides of those kinds of phone conversations all the time — there wasn’t much privacy, after all — and they always depressed her. Was that the kind of conversation I wanted? she asked incredulously.

So I don’t hear from her very often — sometimes weeks will pass with only the occasional text — but when we do talk, we talk for a long time. And we really talk. Which is better. (Or so I remind myself when I’m halfway into week 2 without a word and am feeling grief-stricken and half-mad with missing her.)

4. If you are lucky enough to be friends with your kid (who is not a kid) on Facebook, use this gift wisely.

A few Facebook sub-rules:

A. Don’t friend her friends. If they befriend YOU, it’s fine to accept the offer. But don’t ever — I repeat: ever — send friend requests to her friends. (A further note: if you teach? It’s creepy to send friend requests to your students, too. If they friend you, and you don’t mind being friends with your students on Facebook — I for one don’t mind — then you can say yes. But please don’t friend-request them.)
B. Don’t you dare friend her teachers, either. (As if you’d even think of it! But don’t.)
C. In general, it’s okay to friend her friends’ parents if you have met them in real life. But this is a gray area. If your daughter would rather you didn’t, then don’t. This is her life, not yours. And yes, the parents of her friends count as part of her life, not yours. (Also: sometimes when you friend them, they don’t respond. I report this from experience. And that’ll feel weird and it’ll be like you’re back in junior high [What is she? Too cool to be friends with me? Or — worse — what am I, a loser?]. So be prepared for this, and if you think your feelings are going to be hurt, be cool: let the other parents friend you instead.)
D.The most important rule: don’t ever (are you listening? EVER) post on your daughter’s Facebook wall/timeline. Do not comment. Do not “like.”

E. And don’t post comments on anything her friends post, either.

(I know I don’t follow sub-rules “d” or “e” very consistently. But I’m trying. And I do it so much less often than I used to, right, Grace?)

5. Send care packages.

Send food, underwear, socks (these are the gifts that keep on giving! What’s better than getting to put off doing laundry for a few more days?), any special small things you know she’ll love but either won’t have access to (is she at a school far from a city with no way to get to a city?) or on which she won’t want to spend her own money, or the spending money you’ve provided, which she is carefully doling out to herself and trying to make last (I always throw in a few of the eyeliners I know Grace likes, because they cost eight bucks apiece and I remember what spending eight bucks felt like at that age).

6. Eventually, you can slow down with the care packages.

Everybody does. But don’t stop sending them. Most parents do stop altogether, it turns out. Be one of the best parents at the whole school and send one out from time to time. Everyone will envy her. (As Grace enters her senior year, I am committed to continuing to send her stuff. I’ve already sent one box. Mostly, though, it was things she accidentally left behind. But I couldn’t resists stopping in at Marshall’s — which just happens to be right next door to a UPS store here — and buying her some leopard-pattern pajamas and a leopard-pattern shower cap. And, um, a few other things, okay?) (Oh, there’s an important coda to this: don’t feel terrible if you don’t hear anything right away after you know the care package has been delivered. For one thing, your daughter might not have picked it up yet. Because she’s, you know, busy. And the mailroom is inconveniently located. For another, even if she has, and has opened it and begun enjoying it, she still might not contact you right away. ALTHOUGH SHE SHOULD. Even a two-word text would be nice. Or a one-word text: “Thanks!” Therefore, I hereby decree that if you hear nothing and a week has passed since the day you shipped it out UPS two-day ground, you may text and say, innocently, “Did you get the package I sent?” Or better yet, “Box arrived?” Brief is always better. I know that’s hard to believe, coming from me. But just like Facebook posting, I’m working on it, all right?)

7. Whatever you do, don’t tell yourself, “That ungrateful wretch! That’s the last care package I’m ever going to send.”

Because that’ll probably hurt you more than it’ll hurt her. Take a deep breath and send that text instead.

8. But don’t bother emailing. Ever. You’ll never get a response to an email.

9. You can, however, write real letters.

Just don’t count on getting an answer. But I can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be appreciated — for the novelty alone, no doubt. But also: she will probably keep them, and decades from now, she’ll come across them again and they will make her much happier than they made her when she first got them. So send them to her for her future self’s sake. If you feel like it, I mean. (If you hate writing letters, don’t bother. It’s not like it’s a requirement. And a person who hates writing letters is not going to write one that’s going to make anyone happy anyway.)

10. If you don’t hear anything at all, via text or phone, and you’ve spotted no evidence of her on Facebook, it is permissible to send a one-word text after seven days have elapsed.

You may write: “Alive?” (If she doesn’t write back then — and give it a few hours, because sometimes even when they’re alive and know you’re worried, your children (not children) may be in class or otherwise unable to respond to your panic — then you may call, or send a text in all caps, or do any of the other things I’ve noted above should never be done (with the single exception of writing CALL YOUR MOTHER on her Facebook wall/timeline). But do keep in mind that bad news travels fast. If something were really wrong, you’d hear about it. (I remind myself of this regularly. It is oddly comforting.)

11. Don’t try to inspire guilt in your kid.

Don’t be petulant. Don’t get huffy. Don’t be a drag. And don’t throw your weight around. For heaven’s sake, don’t puff out your chest and carry on about how AS LONG AS I’M PAYING FOR YOUR EDUCATION, YOU CAN DAMN WELL _________ [fill in the blank here: “call me once a week,” “listen to my advice about what courses to take,” “major in what I TELL you to major in,” etc.). This has never been my particular issue — I’m not an authoritative type anyway, but because I’m a college professor myself who has to deal constantly with the consequences of other parents insisting that their children study what they’re not interested in, or that they give up on what they love and turn their attention to something “more practical,” I am very sensitive to it. There has never been an academic term when I have not seen at least one young person in despairing conflict because her parents have given her stern advice about her education — or outright demanded that she major in something they consider acceptable as a condition of continuing to pay her tuition — and in almost every case, in the course of the conversation, I have learned that the parents in question were offering advice or delivering edicts on matters about which they knew practically nothing. Or, even more often, actually nothing. Consider this: if you are not in fact an expert (and pause to ask yourself: am I an expert in this subject? And if the answer seems to you to be yes, then ask yourself, what makes me an expert? And if the answer is, because I’m his/her father/mother, goddammit, or because I’m ____ years old so I know a little something about everything or least a whole hell of a lot more than that kid does, then no, you’re not an expert, you’re just a parent/old, which is not the same thing at all), then don’t give advice, ever. To your kid or to anyone. Unless you are asked for it. And even then, even if you are asked (“Tell me, what should I do?”), tread very carefully. Offer an opinion, sure, if you have one. Unless you are certifiably an expert on the subject at hand, don’t offer unsolicited advice. That’s right: even to your own child — who is, as I’ve noted once or twice, not a child anymore. (And yes, I am, in fact, an expert at being a mother whose child is away at college. Not just because I’ve experienced it, but also because I’ve thought so much about it — and agonized about it. It may be that this is the real definition of expertise: having agonized about something.) If you are an expert, well, then, I think it behooves you to offer advice. Especially if you see something alarming going on, or about to go on. Then you are morally obliged to help. (That’s why I’ve cooked up this list. I know you: your kid has just left for college. You are about to make A LOT OF MISTAKES.)

12. Listen to your child (who is no longer a child) if she worries aloud to you.

Advise her if she asks you. But let her make her own decisions . . . and if she has no idea yet what she’s interested in, don’t put pressure on her: she’ll figure it out. Everyone figures it out eventually, if she is allowed to. And if you are tempted to say, “A theater major! But what on earth are you going to do with that?” or “A French major? Are you kidding me? What possible use is that?”, pause and remind yourself that there are many, many people out in the world living fulfilling lives and earning a living who themselves were theater or French (or art or English or philosophy or whatever else strikes you as silly) majors. And remember that there are, in fact, people who are experts in the very field — whatever that field is — that any college student is or might eventually be interested in. And these actual experts are available for conversations with that student. (And remember this, too: some people end up doing work that directly relates to their college major and some don’t. But if a person simply endures those four years of college, studying something that doesn’t interest him, he’ll have a miserable college experience — or an experience that has as little as possible to do with the courses he takes and everything to do with the parties he goes to — and if he ends up with a career related to that major he wasn’t interested in to begin with, or even hated, in the first place, he’ll have a miserable life.)

13. But my own preferred method of making my kid’s life hard is inducing guilt.

(I’m a Jewish mother — what can I tell you? It’s hard not be an expert at guilt.) But I fight against this. And you should too, if it’s your natural tendency. That is, if you want to have a happy, healthy relationship with your grown-up child. And if you want that “child” to have a happy, healthy life. Fight it with all your might.

14. Remember that four years passes very fast — much, much faster than you could possibly have imagined on that day when you said goodbye for the first time — and that you have the rest of your life to get this right.

But these four years are a pretty good place to start. Even if you weren’t off to all that good a start before this. I like to think that my daughter and I had a good relationship foundation before she left home. But those first months after she left were very hard for me. And I was prepared, and I knew it would be hard. I just didn’t know how hard, or in exactly what ways it would be hard. But now I do, and as I begin Year 4, I feel pretty confident I’ve got a good handle on it all.

Except for the Facebook thing.

featured image – Gilmore Girls