Five Parenting Truths We Realised While Dropping Our Son Off At College

"It’s difficult to describe the unfamiliar feeling that accompanied that moment of separation enlightenment. A strange combustible mix of hope and fear, of joy and sadness..." — A parent's insight.

By Aparna Samuel Balasundaram

Five Parenting Truths We Realised While Dropping Our Son Off At College

It seemed interminable, but the class 12 board exam beast was finally slain!

We had made it, and lived to tell the tale.

And, it was amidst the ensuing merriment and vigorous pats on the back at shepherding our eldest child through this important milestone that we suddenly grasped the significance of that moment — our son, Atreyu, would soon be leaving home and heading off to college!

It’s difficult to describe the unfamiliar feeling accompanying the moment of separation enlightenment. A strange combustible mix of hope and fear, joy and sadness, relief and anticipation — where a nervous, stray thought can easily fan the flames of dormant parental anxiety.

We valiantly fought back tears as we hugged him and mumbled our goodbyes. There was so much we wanted to say, but Atreyu hurried us along — not unlike the restless agitation of a bird in a cage about to be set free.

“Isn’t it time to get going?” he would hint repeatedly, cutting short any hopes of prolonging that bittersweet farewell.

And, on the drive back to our hotel, our minds were trying to make sense of what we were experiencing — planting the seed for this article. Over the next few days, we captured our thoughts and wanted to share with you the five truths we’ve realised through this college-drop experience.

1. Twenty-four per cent. That's all: That’s the portion of their lives our children might be living at home with us (assuming they leave for college at age 18 and have an average life span of 75 years). The remaining 75% will be spent away from us. So, we only get one-quarter of our children's lives to enjoy with them, nurture them and experience their awesomeness. That’s not much time, is it?

For us, that gave rise to a new perspective on the precious captive time we have with our children. Someone once said love for your child is spelled T-I-M-E.

We agree.

Make the time to learn who your children are and how they are shaping up. Invest time in strengthening your bond with them. Learn more about their interests, beliefs, fears and hopes for their future. If you are rolling your eyes and telling yourself that you know this already — then we’d suggest asking yourself, 'How much time do I spend relaxing and enjoying with my children?'

Eighteen years seems like a long time, especially, if you have younger children — but believe us, the cliché is true — time does fly when it comes to time with your children.

2. We need to raise our children with their future in mind: And, unless you are clairvoyant, your children's future is largely unpredictable. For many of us, our usual knee-jerk parenting reaction is to focus on what we can control, and do what everyone else is doing. So, we spend oodles of energy, time and money focusing and fussing about our children's school academic performance.

But, study after study has shown that there is almost no statistical correlation between a child’s academic performance in school and being successful in life. And, in our hearts, I think, most of us know this fact — but don’t want to accept it because what would we do when we can’t nag our kids to study more!

With your child’s future in mind, it’s time to ask yourself — do you know what their passions are? Where do their strengths lie? Are you investing enough into building their confidence to adapt to new, perhaps unknown, circumstances? Have you encouraged them to take calculated risks, to fail and learn to pick themselves up? What shapes their own faith, optimism and vision of their future? How are you helping them measure the value of their own lives?

3. Children think of separation in a different way: And, technology plays a big part in this. When we were of college-going age, leaving our homes and travelling to the other side of the country — let alone the globe — was a big deal. The distance between us and our parents back home served to increase our sense of disconnect. Communication options were limited to writing letters or waiting for our turn at the telephone booth, where we often lost precious time screaming, 'Can you hear me now?'

For children of the current generation, that sense of separation doesn’t seem to exist, or at least, to that degree. Somehow, we get the impression that the ability to make a video call or have a conversation through real-time messaging distorts their sense of time and distance. We experienced this first hand when Atreyu actually questioned our desire to come and say goodbye to him before we left campus. I don’t think he understood our desire to hug him and look into his eyes and say that we loved him and were proud of him. We can only surmise that this is because he knows he can connect with us over WhatsApp or Skype whenever he wants. The fact that we are countries and time zones apart did not really seem to matter. Atreyu's generation takes digital connectivity for granted — a Wi-Fi connection is synonymous with oxygen — and we can’t help but wonder, if for our children, a digital connection is becoming an acceptable substitute for physical connection?

4. Loving them means trusting them: Sounds good in theory, but trust us when we say that it’s hard to do. Right from the time our children were toddlers to the time they stepped into teenage, we’ve been there for them, helping them make important decisions. But, the fact of the matter is, now that Atreyu is in college, he has to be able to take decisions and deal with their consequences. We just have to trust that we’ve raised him with the wisdom to make good decisions, and with the strength of character to handle setbacks. And, if you are a spiritual person, you need to trust and take solace in the fact that the Almighty has a loving and watchful eye out for your baby!

So, it’s a good time to evaluate how your parenting helps your child become independent, make decisions and manage consequences. And, while you’re at it, check to see if your child has a clear sense of what is good and right. How does your child deal with the consequences of bad decisions, especially those made with good intent? We realised that the more we become comfortable with our children being independent and making good decisions, the easier it becomes for us to trust them when they are ready to leave home.

5. They are not you: Be honest and don’t try to deny that somewhere deep down in your heart you wish your child could be more like you. It would be so much simpler to get things across, wouldn’t it? Perhaps you even wished they would do some of the things that you always wanted to, or certainly not make the mistakes you made. Some of that might be helpful to them, but when your dreams for them become their dreams for themselves, then we’ve got a problem. Remember the movie ‘3 Idiots’?

In college, Atreyu decided to choose a stream neither of us had done. All we could do was to help him was to ensure that his chosen field of study was aligned with his abilities, interests, passions and strengths. Can those change before he’s done with college? It’s a possibility we have to accept. Because, we realised that he’s not studying for us — that is, to make us happy or do us a favour.

So, we believe it’s never too early to look for and appreciate the unique character of your children. What are they naturally drawn to? Expose them to various stimuli and keep a watchful eye out for what interests them. And, as they grow, encourage them to learn to persevere, give their best in every endeavour, and believe in their own abilities to grow, learn and improve.

We need to help our children value the unique individuals that they are, regardless of their achievements, and not measure themselves against worldly metrics of success. You know what we mean. Don’t take it as a personal insult or express your disappointment if your children struggle in subjects you got your Masters in! Instead, seek out their strengths and passions and help them develop the confidence to imagine the possibilities — finding ways to create value in this world with them.

Your children’s hopes and dreams, their challenges, their achievements are probably going to be different than yours. Accept it. In fact, celebrate it.

Saying goodbye was hard, coming back home to Atreyu’s empty room was hard, not laying a plate at the table for him was hard. We even missed the daily arguments when it was time to wake him up for school. But what was even harder was accepting the serious responsibility as parents to raise a happy, resilient child who loves himself and can love others enough to make a positive, meaningful impact on this world.

Aparna Samuel Balasundaram is the co-founder of Life Skills Expert that enables parents to raise happy, confident and successful children. www.lifeskillsexpert.com

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