It’s Finals Week and academia’s annual Festival-of-Regret has officially begun! I am celebrating this year by finally writing the letter to my students’ parents that I wish I had written a long time ago, in the hopes that it might do someone some good. Within it, I’ll employ the feminine pronoun “she” liberally, but all my advice applies to the parents of any student. Incidentally, the enrollment of US colleges has been more than 50% female since the 1980s. Just sayin’.
An Open Letter from Your Kid’s College Professor
Hi there. We haven’t formally met, but I get paid to hang out with your kid. Chances are, you’re paying a sh*tload for the favor, and although shockingly little of it goes to me, I care more than you might think. You see, this ain’t my first ride on the finals ferris wheel. I’ve been in this job for twenty years; I’ve seen students both succeed and fail, often simultaneously and sometimes spectacularly. Ages 18-22 represent an interesting stage of human development. Just like with the earlier stages, there are milestones that are naturally passed during healthy development: between ages 0-1 a child learns to crawl, and so on. During young adulthood a child must take important steps towards self-sufficiency, and similar to the other stages, parental support (or lack thereof) makes all the difference. Towards this, I’m asking you to do five things for your child while she is at college.
- Give her some space. Higher learning takes time, and it takes energy. To do college right, your child will need to spend several hours each day sitting in the library and reading, or standing in a lab and experimenting (and that’s just two of the many examples I could put here). She may not be used to spending her time this way and so may have a hard time locating those hours and eliminating the activities that used to occupy them. I cannot overemphasize the following: if she doesn’t successfully find and use those hours, she will likely not do well and possibly even fail out. You are in the overwhelmingly important position of being able to give her those hours out of the time that you used to spend interacting with her. You can choose to give them freely or you can harness her into a yoke of guilt that she will carry for the rest of her life. When she lived at home, she participated in your daily life. At what level do you expect her to continue now that she lives elsewhere? I understand keenly that she is programmed to meet your expectations over mine, and you must also acknowledge this within your dynamics. How often must she visit? Which family events must she attend? Forgive this indelicate question: if you decide to get divorced while she’s in college (and I see this often), to what extent will you entrain her in the proceedings? Making these choices is your responsibility, as she is still relatively unskilled at setting boundaries. Note that you may also have to regulate the amount of space that her younger siblings give her, which means that you will have to make up for the attention that they are accustomed to receiving from her.
- Reinforce the fact that learning is her most important job. I am working hard to teach your child how to go recklessly overboard. Together we will do crazy things: We’ll read a single book over and over and then she’ll write (and rewrite) a ten page letter to me about one of the characters. We’ll drive a hundred miles just to see one big rock. She’ll grow intimate with the daily customs of people that lived centuries ago and which are now gone forever. I will lure her towards semi-impossible dreams like chasing the faint hope of a cure for an illness that very few (yet still too many) people will ever contract. Believe it or not, all of these things contribute to a supremely practical skill: during her life, your child will often see people go recklessly overboard for love, for money and for power. My job is to show her that going overboard for learning is also an option. I need you to reinforce my opinion that this is a worthy choice, which means that you must embrace her growing identity as an intellectual. Your relationship is no longer about what she eats or when she sleeps, it is about what she thinks about the world. Ask her which class is her favorite and why. Ask her to show you something that she figured out. Listen to her talk about it. For hours. Praise her work and tell her how proud you are, regardless of whether it was graded “C” or “A” – there is always victory in learning. Help her celebrate her intellectual maturation.
- Actively push her towards independence. This is the appropriate time for your child to learn to show up on time, pay her bills, fill out paperwork and meet her physical needs without help from you. One of the wonderful things about college is that it effectively provides training-wheels for many of these steps: food is prepared for you, but is only available at certain times; school is your job, but there’s a syllabus telling you what to do week by week in order to succeed. I’ll be blunt: we are all hoping that your child will outlive you, and Heaven forbid otherwise. Once you’re gone she will have to keep herself healthy and safe without any help from you. College is an appropriate time for you both to start working concertedly towards that goal. Does your child know what to do when she needs a ride somewhere, needs to secure birth control, needs to request an override? Her first recourse in these situations should not be to call you. When you get those calls, cheerfully chirp out, “Oh gosh honey, you’d know better than I would — I’m sure you can figure it out.” Then follow up and praise her for trying to do it independently, even if she screws it up.
- Try not to feed into the propensity to complain. We all love to complain, but students – if they aren’t careful – raise this to a high art. Unfortunately, this is also a skill that won’t do them any good in the long run. Your child probably feels compelled to carry on at length about how gross the dorm food is, how disgusting the bathrooms are, how her classes are too hard and her professors are just plain boring (and mean). I know you’re inclined the listen sympathetically, but it’s better for you to redirect the conversation into asking her what she does like about what she’s doing and learning. It’s only by long examination of her preferences that she will settle on a career path, and this is best done out loud and with good attitude. Please bear in mind that just because she doesn’t like a class, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t learning something useful, and it also doesn’t automatically preclude her from earning a decent grade. She’ll get more out of college if she approaches it positively – she’ll also be much more likely to finish her degree.
- Think about it, and then talk about it. Why not print out this post and go through it with your college-age kid over the holiday break? As was ever the case, you have far more influence over your child’s education than her teacher does. I am no substitute for a parent, nor will I ever attempt to be. You love her unconditionally for the person that she is, and I love only the things that I am teaching her to do. For the brief period while she is at college, she is both an adult and a child, growing in critical ways. Perhaps this means that we are raising a child together, you and I. It is one of the great privileges of my job to be able to contribute to her growth, but I need your help — we both do. She is your child, and she will never stop needing you. And now that she’s in college, she needs you more than ever.
If you liked this post you might like like to know Why I Love Science.