A lot of the trials of college life can be mitigated by some simple conversations.
My car was loaded and I was ready to hit the road. Eighteen years old and college bound. Mom gave me a hug and asked whether I had told my dad goodbye.
I went back into the house, shook my dad’s hand and told him I was leaving.
“Where are you going?” he asked. My dad, though wonderful in most every way, has always had a certain detachment when it came to situations such as this. So I couldn’t tell whether he was joking or serious. I’m still not sure.
“Headed to college,” I said. I walked to the car and he followed me half way to the drive.
My mom looked at my dad and wondered whether he had any last minute words of wisdom.
“Don’t be a dipshit.”
“Um. Okay. Thanks.”
And off I went. I chuckled at my dad’s seemingly trite admonition, then spent the next three months failing to heed it. I was a colossal dipshit. I made horrible grades and ended up transferring schools.
Looking back, I doubt anything my dad said could have saved me from myself. I was insecure, immature and ill-equipped to handle my new and sudden independence.
When my son went to college two years ago, I wrote a list of “50 Rules for Sons” in an effort to summarize the lessons I had hoped, but likely failed, to impart during his first 18 years. I did the same for my daughter who is graduating this month. They have served as the starting point for some interesting conversations.
There is no primer on how to have a conversation with our own children, especially when they are young adults. The transition from parent to peer can be awkward and uncomfortable. Here are a few basic ground rules.
- Don’t force it
- Don’t interrupt
- Don’t use your conversation as a “teaching moment”
- Don’t judge
They are adults now and should be treated as such. With those ground rules in mind, I have identified three conversations you might want to have with your child who is about to leave home for the first time.
What (and who) must they leave behind?
No matter how independent your child, leaving home is a daunting ordeal. There is an emotional bond with home that transcends reason or rational thinking. Are you making it easier or harder? What (or who) are they holding onto? Do you make them feel guilty? Are you unfairly dependent on them? Are they too dependent on you?
Ask them. Then listen. There may even be an unintended tether that is holding them back.
I am always surprised at the things that I have said to my kids over the years that have been misinterpreted or misunderstood. I took my daughter on a college visit last year. She was filling out a questionnaire which asked about her desired area of study. She turned to me and asked what to put down.
“I don’t know what I want to study but I have to put something down.”
Trying to be helpful I told her to just put down something general in nature.
“Just write down ‘business’,” I suggested.
A few months later she was trying to narrow down her list of schools and she was in tears. I wondered what was wrong.
“I just don’t want to be a business major,” she said. I had to explain that I never intended to convey a desire for her to major in business. She was visibly relieved.
After accumulating 18 plus years of conversation, instruction, nuance, and manipulation, it’s no wonder our sons and daughters feel conflicted. So it wouldn’t hurt to clear the air.
There is not a more beautiful gift you can give your child than unconditional permission to leave and to be themselves.
How will they define success?
I love the story of the party goers who were on a large boat, eating lobster, drinking wine, having the time of their lives. It was a perfect evening and they could not have desired anything more…until an even bigger yacht pulled in right beside them.
Oftentimes our only reference point for our own success is the relative success of others. But it’s even less than that. It’s what we perceive to be the relative success of others. Here’s the huge flaw in buying into that success matrix: it only counts wealth and status as success benchmarks.
When I left for college I couldn’t see farther into the future than the next weekend. I defined success as a good party, and a good party was the next party. I had no concept of a larger picture of success. I majored in the minors.
When I graduated, I wasn’t much better. I used to believe that people who were not wealthy were unhappy. It was a long time before I realized that usually the opposite is true.
Ask your kids how they would define success. If they answer money or power, you still have some work to do.
How will they stay engaged and motivated?
Successful people share a number of traits. They are typically smart, ambitious, articulate and hard working. But I believe they share an often overlooked attribute- curiosity.
They are interested in and inspired by the world around them. They ask difficult questions. They want to know how things work. They read. They investigate. They want to disrupt the status quo. They aren’t afraid of divergent or conflicting opinions. In fact, they seek them out. They aren’t afraid to be wrong.
Ask your kids what they will do to get out of their comfort zone. How will they find new challenges? How will they overcome the insecurity that accompanies original thoughts and ideas? How will they resist distractions? How will they avoid destructive behaviors?
I regret my failure to seek opportunities to try new things when I was young. I joined a fraternity with guys who were mirror images of me. As my daughter likes to say: “Sameness is lameness.” Instead of filling my time with new people and new ideas, I filled it with happy hours and hall parties.
Vices and bad habits are often the by-products of boredom, complacency and insecurity. Arming your son or daughter with the confidence to seek new challenges will give them a significant head start in life.
Disclaimer: The aforementioned advice is subject to almost constant revision depending on circumstances, mood, dynamics and relationships. In case of emergency, simply resort to the following advice, likely to prove just as effective: “Don’t be a dipshit.”
Photo by Brosner