Sending a kid to college is not a simple or easy task. There are of lot of logistics to manage, and of course it’s a ridiculously emotional event. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but in her book Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage, author and parent Kelly Radi offers invaluable advice to make the process easier for parents. Her wisdom makes it possible for all parties to sail smoothly into the next chapter.
Radi did a Q&A with Between Us Parents to share what led to Out to Sea, her great metaphor for what parents need to be for their soon-to-be college kids, and suggestions to make the lead-up to freshmen orientation enjoyable for everyone.
Between Us Parents: What inspired you to write Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage?
Kelly Radi: After watching a little pink plus sign slowly reveal itself on a stick twenty-two years ago, one of the first things I did was buy a book called What to Expect When You’re Expecting. This book became my pregnancy survival guide. I referenced it daily, comforted by advice from experts and women who’d carried babies before I did.
In the years that followed, I found how-to books for parenting toddlers and teens. So as our “baby” neared high school graduation, I found myself once again unsure about the future—wondering what to expect as we sent her off to college. I searched for answers, for a guidebook. I found books on ACT prep, college finances, and admissions. I found several books geared toward students themselves. But what I wanted was an honest, heartfelt, informative book written for parents by someone who truly grasped the tsunami of emotions I was experiencing and would give it to me straight.
When I couldn’t find the book I was searching for—one that covered all aspects of the launch: the factual, the emotional and the practical—I started researching and wrote it myself. Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage is my version of What to Expect: the College Years. It is a book for parents who are preparing to launch their children. It’s designed to help navigate many aspects of college life—to provide honest answers and practical guidance when parents need it most.
BUP: For those parents who have kids who are a bit younger and still have a few more years until they head away from home and out to sea, are there things they can be doing to prepare both themselves and their kids?
KR: It’s never too soon to start preparing our kids for adulthood. Start by setting a precedence of honest, open communication. Talk about real life and don’t shy away from the tough stuff. Talk about money management, substance abuse, and sex. Discuss health, relationships, values, and expectations.
Most importantly, don’t forget to listen when they speak. Really listen. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.
In addition, teach your child the practical skills they’ll need when they begin “adulting.” Don’t assume they know how to manage a budget if you haven’t taught them. Walk your student through a credit card statement and explain the difference between credit and debit cards. Have them schedule their own appointments and fill out paperwork. And, of course, teach them how do laundry.
By doing these things you are taking away some of the fear of letting go. It allows you to gradually prepare them (and yourself) for this exciting time of transition.
BUP: I love your use of anchors and sails as analogies for parenting. Can you tell me a little more about how parents can be both when their kids are launching?
KR: As parents, we’ve done our best to provide anchors for our children: safe and loving homes, core values, and faith foundations. Anchors, like roots, are the superglue that holds a family together. Being an anchor makes sense. You’ve been doing it since the day they were born. Now your child is preparing to leave for college, to take the voyage into adulthood. It’s is a time unlike any other when they need the sense of security you provide.
But college students need more than just anchors. They need sails to help them launch. You must now give your children freedom, independence, and wisdom. You must let go and encourage them to test the waters. That’s a lot more challenging for parents to process, but it’s a vital part of a successful college experience.
I also tell parents to think of the college years as training for a new sailor. Your child (the sailor) has moved from the controlled dry docks of high school into the safe harbor of a university. Being in the harbor brings new experiences and uncomfortable situations. But it also empowers them with new communication tools and provides ample opportunities to learn to steer a vessel.
They’ll make some mistakes and learn to adjust course. Soon (hopefully after four years!) they’ll be confident enough to venture out to sea, in the open waters of real life. For now, though, providing both anchors and sails is the best way you can support them and prepare them for the voyage ahead.
BUP: It seems to be accepted that the summer after graduation before a kid heads off to college can be rough. Any suggestions for making that pre-launch time a bit smoother for everyone?
KR: The summer before they launch can be daunting and stressful. Emotions run high for both parents and students. The kids (who think they are now automatically adults without house rules) are wanting to squeeze all they can out of their social life with high school friends, while parents want to savor every last moment of “family time.” Often parents and kids have different ideas about things like curfews and jobs, which really shouldn’t surprise us. Don’t parents and teens have different ideas about a lot of things?
It really does come back to communication. And a little give and take. Ask about their expectations. Share your thoughts and concerns, adult to adult. It’s okay to have some house rules. It’s also okay to loosen the reins a little bit.
It’s finding a balance that all parties can live with, one of mutual respect. There are some life lessons to be taught and learned through this process that may even help your student as he or she prepares to live with a college roommate.
BUP: How important is it to establish expectations for both parents and kids before they say their farewells? What are some common areas where you feel expectations are often not reality-based? And what suggestions do you give to each for keeping those expectations grounded?
KR: There are so many areas I could touch on regarding expectations, but I’m going to focus on communication as that topic comes up frequently when I meet with parents. I get asked, “How often should I call my child?” or “What’s the appropriate number of weekly texts?”
The answer is…there is no magic number. It is different for each student and each family. Parents must remember this is college. It will look and feel different than high school. Contact from your student may ebb and flow.
In a world where we’re always available by cell phone, parents get concerned when their students (often for the first time) don’t text or call back immediately. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you don’t hear from your student as often as you’d like, take it as a good sign. No news is usually good news. It often means they’re actively engaged in university life.
If you’re concerned about the lines of communication, then communicate that.
Take time to discuss your expectations—but with the understanding that your child may need to pull away a bit in order to fully engage in college life.
Together, set some agreed-upon guidelines about how and when you’ll stay in touch. Many experts suggest letting your student take the lead on when and how often you talk. For some families, healthy contact may mean a daily text. For others, it may be a weekend family Skype session. You may agree to not contact your child more than once per week. Or you may want to schedule a biweekly chat time.
Having these frank conversations and setting expectations ahead of time prevents unnecessary parental anxiety while allowing students to develop autonomy. It is one more aspect of giving them both anchors and sails.
BUP: You’ve sent two kids off to college – how did their different personalities impact your approach?
KR: We have two daughters and they have two very personalities and interests. They’re also having two very different college experiences. One daughter made her college choice during her sophomore year of high school and applied to only that college. The other daughter toured and applied to several colleges before making her decision. One joined a sorority. One intramural athletics. One had to medically withdraw from college two weeks into her freshman year due to a severe concussion. (Side note: she’s doing better now and is back in school).
Both have had ups and downs in relation to their college experiences. Both have matured and continue to embrace adulthood. While we’ve had to support them in different ways due to their unique personalities and needs, much of what we do as parents is consistent. We attend family weekends. We send care packages. We eagerly pick up the phone when they call. We are still their anchors—soft places to land when the going gets tough. We still provide sails—support, encouragement and the space to figure things out on their own. And we still discuss expectations and celebrate successes as a family.
This is a time of learning and growing—for both students and parents. While students are learning to navigate campus, classes, and newfound freedom, parents are learning to parent differently and to let go.
Folks, please give your child and yourself a little extra grace as you learn to navigate these new waters. But don’t worry! You still have job security. You’ll always be an anchor—a safe place for your child to take harbor when the going gets tough. But also be the wind that encourages them to sail—to make mistakes, problem-solve and adjust course.
Together, you will not only survive, but thrive on this voyage!
Don’t miss a post! Please subscribe to Between Us Parents’ safe, spam-free email list in the box in the top right corner of the page!