“YIKES! My child is leaving for college in two months.”
The summer before a child enters his or her freshman year of college is filled with excitement and consternation, happiness and remorse, confidence and concern. McGraw Hill Education notes that 25 percent of college students drop out of their first year due to not being academically, emotionally, or financially prepared for college life and adulthood. Now is your chance to help your child in his or her final preparation.
Because Family Mission Planning is a cornerstone of McManus & Associates’ approach to estate planning, the firm has compiled a list of ideas and research that can help families stay on track with their individual mission statements as college-bound children leave the nest. Here are 10 pieces of advice that you may not have gathered from your high school guidance office, selected universities or friends with adult children, but that we think might hold an equal amount of wisdom:
- Balance – take it easy: Pre-med, Pre-law, Engineering, Science and Math majors frequently require challenging courses in the first semester. Many schools, however, have core requirements, as well as mandatory courses in areas outside your child’s expertise. For the first semester, encourage your child to take at least one or two courses that have a lighter workload in areas that they really enjoy; the adjustment to college life and all of its demands will be significant enough without an overwhelming amount of work. Some “enlightened” schools such as MIT and Johns Hopkins have “covered grades” for freshmen, meaning students take courses PASS/FAIL for the first semester or first year taking the “GPA pressure” off and the transition into college is more sustainable.
- Grades – yes, they do matter: A wise man once said to me, “College is a great time to have fabulous memories that you take with you the rest of your life, but grades also travel with you the rest of your life.” There are many significant aspects of learning both inside and outside the classroom that enrich the college experience and make for better human beings; there is no question your child should embrace every aspect of the college experience. That said, your child’s course load (over four years) and GPA will be leading indicators for the first job your child will land or the graduate program into which your child will gain admission. Surely one’s first job or graduate program is not the dispositive indicator for a rich full life, but it’s a wonderful way to start.
- Walk, walk, walk and take public transport (and a cab/Uber when it’s late at night!): If your child’s campus and surrounding town are walkable and/or have ample public transportation, do not have your new college student bring a car to school the first year, if it can be avoided (we would encourage equal restraint in the following years, unless having a car is absolutely necessary). Walking and taking public transportation will enable your children to further enhance the college experience as they enjoy their surroundings and appreciate the life they have. When it comes to a night out, your child impaired behind the wheel is a horrible risk, but your child in a car with an impaired friend driving is equally unacceptable – lives can be ruined in an instant. Encourage your child to plan ahead and take a cab or an Uber.
- How much did you spend?! For many children, college is a liberating time marked by freedom from the shackles of typical parenting when they lived at home. Parents may avoid putting their child on a budget because they feel as though they are constraining their child’s experience – until the first credit card statement arrives. It’s important in advance to discuss expectations of budget and to monitor the monthly burn. It’s the best lesson you can give your children in managing finances and helps prepare them for the time when they are truly “out on their own” and providing for themselves. Oh, and keep an eye on Uber: it’s convenient, but if your child uses it every night, the costs can quickly add up if they don’t split the fare with others.
- My child is not returning my calls, my texts or my FaceTime efforts. Should I call his or her roommates? Let your child lead on the communications front. In time, if you make the conversations interesting and supportive, your college freshman will likely want to communicate with you as much as you want to communicate with your child. Let them volunteer what’s going on in their lives. Update them on the positive stuff going on back home so that you’re not viewed as clinging to their lives, trying to vicariously share college with them, but showing them the equally invigorating time you are having as well.
- Yes, you can enjoy college with your child, too! Stay plugged in with your children and gently give them confidence during periods when they feel homesick. Look through the event calendar at your child’s school, and propose going to see a performance, premiere or lecture, to which you also invite your child, beyond Parents’ or Family Weekend. Save up for a nice hotel and schedule a special dinner, allowing them to break away from the now routine cramped quarters of a dorm room and cafeteria food. It may wind up being the best night of the month for both of you.
- Oh dear, my child is a legal adult, but I have learned that the frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until age 25. Great high school grades, great ACT/SAT scores and acceptance into a premier school do not mean that a child has developed the full discerning ability to make the best decisions all the time, especially when out at a celebration (and, particularly, if alcohol is involved). Whether your children like it or not, they need your guidance and expertise (help them come to that conclusion with you). Be that sage advice giver, but use it sparingly and be laser-focused about the issue being addressed.
- Your child may be consciously excited AND consciously anxious to leave the nest: If parents think it’s tough watching their child leave the nest and spread his or her wings, imagine the confusion and consternation of that child who daily seeks to fly, but periodically seems so vulnerable and uncertain. He or she boldly, and possibly insolently, “demands” independence but occasionally looks over the top of the nest to see how far the drop is. This push and pull of confidence and vulnerability will be the paradigm for many years. Put aside, therefore, the “less memorable” times during the demand periods and be ready to welcome your child when he or she seeks the compassion and warmth that only a parent can provide.
- Your chick is growing alongside chicks from other nests, too: We can only hope that you and your child have a phenomenally mature and understanding relationship as his or her new adult life starts away from home. But keep in mind that your child’s roommates and friends may not have that same relationship with their own parents. Showing affection and interest in your child’s friends’ and roommates’ lives will not only win your child’s companions’ affection who come to see you as a great parent, but your child will view this as support of their friendships and life choices, strengthening your bond during their maturation process. Your child may also view this open acceptance as an opportunity to share more frequently the events that occur in their social life, which will enrich your appreciation for your child’s experience and may also provide you opportunities to offer them wisdom.
- Let’s get legal (So, who is in charge when your child is in danger?): While your child is an adult who can enter into a legal contract, vote for a public official, and choose his or her path in life, this does not mean he or she is immune from making sub-optimal choices. Young adults think they are invincible and really, really smart at all times. The fickle fate of life means that they can get sick or hurt, resulting in hospitalization. At age 18 they are adults in the eyes of the law, and parents do not have the legal right to make decisions on behalf of an infirm child. The only way to protect against this is to do what you have done for yourself and your spouse – elect individuals to act on your behalf if you are incapacitated. This includes a Health Care Proxy, Power of Attorney, Living Will and Release of Medical Information documents. Each time we learn about a child turning 18, we have them come to our office to prepare and execute these documents naming their parents and other loved ones to act on their behalf in case of an emergency. When John’s daughter left for Johns Hopkins, she was no exception; indeed she wanted to know the relevance of every paragraph and negotiate every term before signing, but in the end the whole family knew that this was in her best interest.
“Your child is like a kite that you fly on the beach,” observed John O. McManus, founding principal of McManus & Associates. “Sometimes you have to run with them to get lift off, sometimes you have to hold them back to avoid too much take off, but always you must enjoy their beauty as they soar through the sky. Most of the time you cannot fly alongside them, but never let go of that mighty rope and always be prepared to make that occasional save when there might be a temporary nose dive.”