Elizabeth Flynn-Dastoor is a PhD candidate and Psychology Lab co-ordinator, Brantford campus, Wilfrid Laurier University
Why is it that babies – some as young as four months – “have to” learn to self-soothe and sleep independently, but when it comes to sending kids off to university, some schools have had to make explicit policies barring parents from sleeping over in residence?
More than ever before, it seems, parents have become interlopers in every step of the transition to university. Some continue to insert themselves into their child’s personal and academic lives for the next four years. Professors and teaching assistants receive e-mails form parents about students’ grades. University staff report verbal abuse from parents when they won’t share information about students’ accounts and meal plans, even after explaining that it would be illegal for them to do so when the student is over 18 years old.
It may be that parents’ own sense of success and accomplishment is tied up in the accomplishments of their children. Or, they may simply feel that their son or daughter is not ready to go out into the world on their own.
Whatever parents’ reasons for holding on, the transition to university (or college) is a unique opportunity to redefine identity and relationships. Parents, ask yourselves, if not now, then when? It’s much more difficult to create an artificial turning point than to authentically transform relationships in the context of an existing life change.
When our kids learn to ride a bike without training wheels, we start off by running alongside them, holding onto the back of the seat. Then, we let go, our hand hovering, waiting to grab on when we see a wobble – maybe we don’t even tell them that we’re letting go. Finally, we let go and stand there, watching them ride away from us, all by themselves. Next time, maybe, we let them ride around the corner, out of our sight. We wait anxiously, proudly, for them to reappear.
The shift from high school to university is a meaningful step in your son or daughter’s journey to adulthood. Will they doubt themselves? Likely. Will you worry? Most definitely. But your approach to this transition will communicate to your child that you believe they have what it takes to make it out in the big wide world – or that you don’t.
To be sure, some kids will be more ready than others for you to let go. But you know your kid, and you can work together to push the boundaries of their comfort zone just a little at a time.
Talk to your son or daughter about what worries you. Listen to their worries. Share what you’re both excited about, too. Talk about how your relationship might be challenged, and talk about what you want your relationship to look like and how you might achieve that.
You might agree to Skype every Wednesday at 7 p.m., or to call only if you haven’t heard from your child in at least five days. You’ll have to come up with a plan that you’re both (mostly) comfortable with, but also agree to discuss changes if it doesn’t work (maybe Wednesday turns out to be the night for intramural inner tube water polo).
If your child is still living at home, then renegotiating your relationship may be even more challenging because the shift in their life is less apparent. Encourage your child to get involved and spend more time on campus than just for classes and studying. Take the opportunity to revisit house rules around things like curfew, checking in, and attendance at family functions.
Wanting our babies to sleep independently and wanting to stay close to our kids when they’re in university are both about control. But at some point, we’ve got to let go. Let go of the seat. Let them ride out of your sight. You will be anxious, but, rest assured, they will reappear. And you’ll both be proud.