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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Launching our third

Uploaded: Jun 26, 2014
Come September we will be launching our third child to college. His departure is still a few months away, but I recently accompanied him to his university's two-day orientation. I attended sessions for parents while he bonded with his future classmates.

The Dean of Students at my son's institution recommended a video of a parent orientation session given by a professor at another college a few years back. Professor Marshall Duke has been teaching psychology at Emory University for 40 years and is the father of three grown children. He has been addressing parents of incoming college freshmen for 25 years. The video is about 50 minutes long, and while some of it is specific to Emory, most of his talk is a humorous and compassionate introduction to parenting a college student and contains many universal truths about this exciting but also daunting transition.

Professor Duke starts with a discussion of the much-anticipated separation from our child as a "privileged moment" invested with power and emotion. Whatever is said or done during this leave-taking has heightened importance and will be remembered, giving us an opportunity to impart a life message. Initially, my response to this advice was alarm, more pressure at an already emotionally wrenching moment? But he suggests a reassuring and practical alternative for those of us unable to simultaneously sob and be articulate; take a quiet moment and write down what we want to say, our child will always remember it just as well as if we were actually capable of saying it at the time.

He describes the process of becoming a college student as a gradual acquisition of many skills. College students need to learn to juggle multiple demands within a less-structured day, establish an identity in a new environment, balance social life with studying, and advocate for themselves. There will be challenges with roommates, disappointing grades, and loneliness. But, he also reassures parents that we have adequately prepared our students to face these challenges, and "in the normal course of events no problem will arise that a student can't solve using the available resources" at their college. Professor Duke repeats this phrase three times. But, he also affirms that we know our child best, and if we hear "that voice that scares us" and tells us our child is in real trouble, call the college immediately and mobilize support.

Whether it is the first "test child" departing or the last child leaving the nest, the absence is felt acutely by the remaining family members. The family structure changes, and there is emptiness and sadness. I remember being surprised at feeling absolutely bereft during my first trip to the grocery store after dropping off our son at college. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by emotion as I asked the butcher for only six pork chops, instead of the usual seven. Or, after my daughter left, tearing up when I passed by her favorite crunchy cheese snacks at Trader Joe's. He talks about the heroic task of adjusting to the last child leaving, and the importance of telling our children we are all right, even if we aren't, thus freeing them of the responsibility of our well-being, and encouraging them to focus on becoming independent and self-reliant.

Professor Duke warns that college students are nocturnal creatures, resulting in jet lag when they visit home, even if they remain in the same time zone. And, if possible, he recommends leaving their childhood bedroom as is for them to return to.

I like his advice about parents' weekend best: don't ask, just go, and bring plenty of money for shopping and restaurants. I have already made our hotel reservations!
What is it worth to you?


Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 27, 2014 at 6:27 am

Beautiful, Sally! Thank you!

Posted by ds, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Jun 27, 2014 at 8:06 am

Great advice. Thanks!

Posted by Karen, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jun 27, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Another terrific and timely post, Sally!
I am reading "Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years" by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger this week, as I grapple with the same issues. At the parent orientation that I went to this summer, they suggested having emotional talks with life advice for new freshman students well in advance of drop-off day, and striving to be calm at the actual move-in. Not sure how well that is going to go!

Posted by CherylBac, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jun 27, 2014 at 4:04 pm

CherylBac is a registered user.

What great tips. I'll need to look back at this when our son heads off to college...especially about parents' weekend!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Jun 28, 2014 at 3:38 pm

It will be interesting to see what this generation of students remembers. One pleasant memory for me was seeing the monarch butterflies migrating while Mom and I made the 18-hour drive to school. Somehow I had never seen monarchs migrating before.

Good luck with the third launch, Sally!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 28, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, PR!

ds, thanks for reading and commenting!

Hi Karen,
Thanks for the Letting Go book suggestion. I will definitely be reading that this summer. In terms of the moment of separation, I think Prof. Duke was giving us the heads up that the moment of leave-taking (like that of birth, death, marriage proposals, weddings, etc.) will be an event that is remembered. For those parents that can hold it together and take the opportunity to say something meaningful, great. I am incapable of that, so my plan is to say a sincere "We love you!" and get in the car really fast, and follow up with a letter. I asked my older two kids if they remembered when I dropped them off and interestingly, they both remember it exactly.

Hi CherylBac,
Thanks for reading and commenting. That day will be here before you know it!

Hi LJ,
I am curious where you saw the monarchs!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Jun 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm

The monarchs were crossing I-90 in New York. Mid or late September. Lots of them but not in a clump just many more than I had ever seen before.

Posted by Laura, a resident of another community,
on Jun 30, 2014 at 10:48 am

Great article, Sally!

While dropping off our first at college and struggling to maintain composure, we listened to to the Dean of Students share his insights into the process. My favorite takeaway was his recommendation about the lack of communication from your child (especially boys) the first few months of school as they adjust:

Send a letter letting them know you're thinking of them and are enclosing a check to cover the cost of buying pizza for their new friends on the floor.
Do NOT enclose the check.
You will get a phone call within minutes of their receiving your letter!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 6, 2014 at 9:15 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Laura!
Thanks for the tip. Sounds like a sure fire way to get in contact!

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