We college parents spend a lot of time fretting about our freshmen. Thats understandable because freshmen enter college pretty much like Tom Hanks hit the island in Cast Away. One moment, entering freshmen are safe and snug at home, basking in their last summer of innocence. The next, they are in over their heads, spluttering and spitting in choppy seas, struggling toward shore through breakers and boxes. A few freshmen do wash out, but most find both their footing and a whole new world in reasonably short order. It helps that they also find thousands of other people sharing their new academic island. Even if your freshman hits double zero in the game of roommate roulette, no one really has to befriend a volleyball just for companionship on campus, as Hanks did on his island.
College freshmen are easy to worry about. We all understand that going off to school is a sink-or-swim proposition. But lets spare at least a little parental concern for kids who have demons of their own to wrestle that are less obvious but just as scary. Those kids have a name, too. We call them seniors.
High school seniors appear to be sitting on top of their world, and most of them thoroughly enjoy the ride. But seniors figure out by spring of their senior year that things will change at graduation. Some have been stewing about the coming change all year long. And why shouldn't they? Graduation means change. Change frightens people. And high school seniors, despite outward appearances and behaviors, are real people with real worries. Whether high school seniors admit it or not, leaving home tops the list. Picking the wrong college is a close second.
College seniors have their own terrors. Many are sweating out graduate school admission. More than a few are trying to decide whether to marry, bum around the world for a year, or move back home with Mom and Dadat a time in their lives when those seem like perfectly reasonable alternatives. But all seniors are quietly consumed with the universal fear that they will leave school and then fail to find a job, a mate, a home, and a place in the world. Parents dismiss those worries because we know better. But what we forget is that our knowledge comes from experience. Our college seniors dont have any experience yet. And trying to tell them they will succeed just because we did is a waste of time. Despite our outward appearances and behaviors, we parents are not real people with real lives to our kids. We are and ever shall be simply Mom and Dad. But there are several things we can do both as parents and as adults to help our senior students.
First, we can anticipate their fears and reassure them that its both normal and healthy to feel some anxiety about the unknown. Second, we can talk with our senior students about their fears. No one likes to appear uncool at any age, but admitting fears and worries is especially difficult for young people to do at the very moment society tells them they have grown up. Third, we can remember how much a kind word or a welcoming gesture means to kids asking for acceptance and validation. Students looking for college admission or first jobs in the real world have their hearts and their egos on their sleeve.
Parents, admissions officers, and employers do themselves an enormous favor by taking these students seriously, treating them with respect, and remembering the power of kindness and understanding.
Finally, we can help our kids friends. The kids who have cleaned out your refrigerator and slept on your floors over the years like you and trust you. Whether you know it or not, they have honored you with their presence for providing a comfortable place where they feel safe. Theyll never ask for it, but they want and need your approval, too. Make sure they get it.
Senior students assume they have to know it all, and they labor under the weight of knowing they dont. They need to hear the truth. No one ever knows it all, and no one ever should. The joy in getting up in the morning is learning something new. Seniors have whole new worlds to explore. Its our job as parents to encourage them to jump into the water and swim toward shore.
Jim Waterbury and his wife, Carol, are parents of Hawkeye senior Libby and West Waterloo High School senior Dan. They live and work in Waterloo, Iowa.