This coming Monday morning at 6:00am, we are taking our oldest child to college. With fewer than forty-eight hours to go, I am sitting in the silence of our house at 6:30 on Saturday morning. All four of our children are sleeping snug in their beds, all under one roof; an era drawing quickly to a close.
As the first day of college has crept up, I have been asked things like:
- “How are you going to handle it?”
- “Are you ready for this?”
- “Do you think you’ll cry?”
- “How hard is it going to be to drive away from your baby?”
My response to these questions has been little more than a shrug, not because I am a callous, uncaring father… just the opposite in fact.
There is a commercial on TV right now where a father and daughter are seen touring a majestic college campus. The father’s phone rings, and it is his financial advisor asking how the college visit is going. They chat briefly about how the daughter loves the college, but then the conversation quickly turns to the financial realities of the situation. The father expresses some concern over the cost of it all, but the financial advisor calms him down by saying, “this is what we’ve been planning for.”
College finances are certainly not as easy as a little forethought, but the ad resonates with me in a different way.
When our daughter Charlotte was born in 2000, my pediatrician father came to the hospital to see her. After the usual grandparent rituals, he turned to me and my wife and said, “I’m not going to give you two a lot of parenting advice, but make no mistake… you start raising your teenager – TODAY.”
For the last eighteen years and two months, Charlotte’s departure on Monday morning is exactly what we’ve been planning for.
Four fourteen years, we lived in a house right up the hill from the local elementary school. Starting in kindergarten, all four of our kids walked to school. This was not anything we set out to do, but the proximity of the house made it a no-brainer. As they learned to be comfortable walking to school, they developed a desire to venture further.
Just beyond the school, and across a 4-lane road, was the grocery store. If you know Rochester NY at all, I’m talking about the Penfield Wegmans. If you don’t know what a Wegmans is, think of it this way… you know how you’ve been to amusement parks, and then you go to Disney and you say to yourself, “holy crap, this is so much better, and so much more than I could have imagined?” Yeah, well Wegmans is the Disney of grocery stores.
As young as ten or eleven, our kids sought the freedom to go to Wegmans on their own. To be honest, the ability to hand your kid $10, and a short shopping list was pretty convenient too. So, we began letting the kids go to Wegmans, at first in pairs, and eventually alone. Each time they came back with what they’d been sent for, you could see just a little bit more “grown-up” in their eyes.
When it came time for our kids to graduate from a tricycle to a two-wheeler, we stuck to the same policy my parents had… no training wheels. In the Nazarian house you got on the two-wheeler in the grass, and you fell… until you didn’t. Charlotte wasn’t particularly interested in this process, until her younger brother got on the bike and was riding within an hour. Charlotte was riding the next day. In our house there are no training wheels… and no sibling order sacred cows.
As our kids brought home school forms, job applications and other items that might require parental attention, we would help where absolutely needed, but for the most part our input was limited to statements like, “I’ve already finished high school, why should I fill out the form? You fill it out and then bring it to me to sign.”
Was it harder than just grabbing the form and doing it yourself, you bet it was.
Last fall, Charlotte (then 17), and her brother Lewis (then 16) attended a one-day event at UNC Chapel Hill. It was one of those “learn what college is like by taking a day of classes” programs. They arose early, drove the 148 miles together in our thirteen year old, beat-up Volvo “kids car” with the manual transmission. Two and a half hours later we received the “here safe” text we had requested. Had I tracked their progress via the “find my iPhone” app? I will neither confirm nor deny, but either way they didn’t know.
I expected another text several hours later letting us know they were heading home, However about an hour after the first message, we received another communication. This text simply said, “I want to thank you both for not being helicopter parents.”
Upon their return that evening, both Charlotte and Lewis told stories of other attendees at the program walking from class to class with their parents directing and managing every detail of the experience. Charlotte’s commentary on this was simply, “Do they even realize they’re going to be alone at college in less than a year? These kids are going to have a lot of trouble with that!”
In my conversations on the topic of kids going to college, the metaphor of a mother bird kicking her young-ens out of the nest keeps coming up, but I don’t find it to be analogous to how I percieve my job as a parent. Human beings are far more complex than baby birds.
The way I see it is this. From the day of their birth, we protect and control our children via a rope. This rope starts out very thick and equally short. As they grow and develop the rope gradually gets longer and thinner.
- When we sense danger we reel it in
- When they excitedly seek freedom, sometimes they get yanked like dog on a chain
- When they get scared, sometimes they furiously climb the rope back home
Eventually the rope gets so long, and so thin, it is effectively nonexistent – that my friends is the goal.
Now, I will admit my daughter is exceedingly independent, and has been most of her life. I will take credit for some of it as a parent, but much of her “fearless girl” outlook on the world is hard-coded in her DNA.
A few weeks ago when mentioning something about next summer, Charlotte casually said, “I probably won’t be home next summer, I’ve already applied for six paid government internships. I really hope I get the one that will send me to Israel next summer.”
In this moment, I looked for the thinnest evidence of the rope and found none. After a little of reflection, I realized it had been gone for some time.
So Monday morning my wife and I will drive our little girl ninety miles to the University of South Carolina, and help her move into her room in the Honors College Dorm. Are we taking her to college? In practical terms, yes. But in actually, for quite some time now, she’s been already gone.
Now, enjoy this little ditty from Brett Dennen, highlighting the importance of never waiting too long to do the things you love.
Copyright © 2018 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved