By Joelle Casteix
College and living away from home is not a continuation of childhood. It’s time to be an adult and to learn and have fun while making adult decisions and understanding adult consequences.
An empowered, confident child has the chance to come into his or her own in the college setting. Your young adult may be adamant about how women need to take back their bodies and how men should be free to live in a world without sexual aggression. But your child needs to understand one thing: All the idealism and activism in the world will not keep him or her safe from assault if there are people out there who simply do not agree with these moral standpoints and do not care.
When my older sister came home from her first trimester of college, she suddenly thought she was the smartest eighteen-year-old on the planet. The rest of us in the house were blithering, uneducated idiots. According to her, we knew nothing of the world, and she had no problem reminding us. A few years later, I went away to college. And the same thing happened. Within a three-month period, my parents went from reasonably equipped adults . . . to utter fools. My parents rolled their eyes and continued about the process of living their lives. And like all young people and their phases, my sister and I both outgrew ours.
Talking to your college-aged child is going to be vastly different from how you have communicated with your child before. While your high schooler may have thought you were embarrassing, out of touch, controlling, or clueless, to your college student you are now uneducated and unworldly. Even the sweetest, most respectful child will embody this in one way or another. Your task is to use this to your advantage. This may be the first time in your child’s life that he or she wants to pontificate. Your child wants to talk at you and tell you things he or she thinks you don’t already know. Resist the temptation to shut your child down and call him or her a mere babe in the woods. (That’s what he or she is, of course, but you don’t need to rub it in.) Instead, let your college student talk. Then start asking questions. Ask if he or she wants your advice. Ask permission to share your opinion. Treat young adults in the conversation as though they are the college professor they think they are. Use your questions to guide the discussion and help your college student come to wise conclusions. Make your child think that your guidance is his or her conclusion.
If you argue with your college student about opinions, you will only serve to solidify your child’s view in his or her mind, no matter how screwed up or dangerous it is. But if you can talk to your college student in a way that makes him or her believe that your input and guidance are actually the child’s idea, you will win in the long run.
It is important to give teens real responsibility with real consequences. Internet connectivity, cars, schools, access to drugs and alcohol, and peer groups can be gateways to maturity—or they can be ingredients in a recipe for disaster. How teens handle these things gives a good indication of how they will handle life in a college atmosphere. If your child is already showing signs of problems with drugs and alcohol, allowing your child to live on a college campus is probably not the best idea, no matter how many promises your child gives you that he or she will “change” or “clean up” once away from home. An overprotected child who has had limited freedom and little ability to make healthy decisions will likely face similar struggles as he or she is barraged with a thousand bad ideas in the first week of college.
So how do you keep your son or daughter from being a statistic? Consider an analogy from the public relations profession, a lesson followed by corporate CEOs, public figures, and other highprofile people: If you don’t want what you have done to be splashed on the cover of the New York Times, trending in social media, or photographed and spread across the world . . . then don’t do it. Of course, no one is perfect, and we all do things that we later regret. But if you assume that anything and everything you do can become public and embarrassing instantly—which it can—then you may think twice about certain actions.
How does this work for college students? Binge drinking, drug experimentation, sex with strangers, nude photos . . . All of these things take on a different light in the age of the Internet. Not only will photos of drunken stupors be potentially embarrassing in the short term, but they can be career-limiting once the college student tries to get an internship, apply for a job, or find a life partner. Talk to your child about sex and the repercussions, including damage to his or her reputation, STDs, the lifelong ramifications of pregnancy, and the emotional turmoil that sex in relationships can cause. No one wants to become a negative statistic—and your child doesn’t have to.
I further this discussion in my book, The Well Armored Child, and discuss safety tips when your (adult) child enlists in the military, travels in foreign countries, and more. After all, as a parent, you are likely to have mixed feelings about sending your child off to college or into the world. This is the moment when parents realize that the actions of that child (now a young adult) in the next few years will be the culmination of all of your parenting. This may be when we parents learn whether we “did it right”—whether we did all we can to develop our child’s ability to function in the real world. Chances are, your child’s success in the wider world will pleasantly surprise you.