My College:
Family Life

Worried Your Big Kids Won't Need You Anymore? Don't Be

Elizabeth Spencer

Near the end of her senior year in college, I got this text from my oldest child: “Random question, but do you remember the type of medicine I took when I scratched my throat by eating a bagel?”

I promptly replied, “Mylanta. It coats your throat.”

“THANK YOU!!!” she responded, also promptly.

Parents of older kids often worry they won’t be needed anymore by their children as their kids make their way through high school and out into the post-graduation world.

I know, because I worried about it, too, when my firstborn hit an age that ended in “-teen” and started to make noises about going away to college. It didn’t help that people at church and family members at reunions asked things like, “So what are you going to do with all your time now that your kids don’t need you?”

But as the mom of one recent high school grad and one newly minted college grad, I can say this without reservation or qualification: our big kids still need us. The needing may come in fits and starts rather than in the steady stream of their younger years (when we could easily be needed a dozen times before we could reheat our cold cup of coffee), but it’s still there.

Our older kids need our information.

We are the keepers of their histories. So when they’re filling out medical paperwork and need to know if they ever had chicken pox, or they’re applying for scholarships and need to know how long they did Scouts…or they’ve scratched their throat and need to know what helped the last time, they drop into the middle of our days, ask their “random question,” and trust us to answer it.

Our older kids need our presence, even if from a physical distance.

A month or so before she left for college, my teenager called me on her way to work. I already knew there was some kind of issue going on because, again, she CALLED ME, and so I answered in the usual way: “What’s wrong??!!”

“I need you to talk me down because I am freaking out,” she told me, and while she wasn’t crying, the panic in her voice reinforced her words.

“Okay,” I told her, faking calm as convincingly as possible. “What happened?”

“Church got out late and then I went to get food on my way to work so I’d have something to eat during my shift but they messed up my order and then it was taking forever for them to fix it and so I had to just drive away with no food even though I paid for it and now I’m going to be hungry AND I’m going to be late for work.”

“Okay, sweetie,” I told her. “It’s going to be alright. I want you to take some deep breaths and concentrate on driving. I'll stay on the line with you until you get to work.”

Which I did, while telling her in my most soothing voice that she had already proven herself to be a good and responsible employee and her bosses weren’t going to be mad at her, and I would bring her food if necessary, and the important thing was to get to work safely.

When she finally got settled at her job and had a break to report back, she told me, “Thank you for staying with me and calming me down.”

Our big kids have to figure out a lot on their own, and this is as it should be. But sometimes, they still need us to stay close by (even if only in voice) while they do it.

Our older kids need our wide margins.

My young adult has been grappling with a big decision concerning where to start her professional life. She’s leaning toward a city almost 1000 miles from home, in a state dear to her heart that she’s visited often.

Throughout the decision-making process, she’s struggled with the need to make the “right” choice. Finally, I had to tell her that most choices in life do not come down to the equivalent of hitting the dead center of a dartboard; they come down to getting ON the dartboard.

I advised her that, as long as she was not acting foolishly and ignoring wise counsel and as long as other, preeminent commitments were not standing in her way, she should make the best choice she could given all the knowledge she could gather at this juncture…and then throw her dart.

Our kids also need our reassurance that our belief in them is not a narrow tightrope they’re walking on, where one errant step will land them out of our favor. Whether they realize it or not, they long to know our love isn't something they have to continually earn — that it is, in fact, our original birthday gift to them.

Our older kids need our perspective.

A few weeks ago, my recent college grad came to me and said, “I need you to reassure me about my finances. I’m worried I’m going into my first job without enough savings.”

I asked how much she had saved up and then told her, “Honey, you’re in great shape. You have a lot more saved ahead of your first professional job than I did when I went into mine. And you have no student loans or a car payment. That puts you in even better shape.”

I could see my daughter visibly relax as she viewed her own circumstances within the context of someone who had gone before her with fewer resources than she has available…and had done just fine anyway.

Our older kids need our steadiness.

Our high schoolers, college students and young professionals are maneuvering through seasons in their lives marked by nothing so constant as change: their hormones, their minds, their relationships and their future plans, not to mention the world around them. Against this landscape of fluctuation, we are their fixed point. We are who and what they can count on.

Not long ago, I learned a fascinating fact about the North Star. Not only is it the brightest star in the Little Dipper, it's also the only star whose position does not change. Other stars revolve around the North Celestial Pole, but the North Star maintains its position. It is a steadfast steady, in fact, that at one time sailors used it as a navigational tool.

As parents, we are our kids’ North Star. When they feel they’ve lost their way or are unsure which direction to go, we will always be the light that leads them home to love.

Elizabeth Spencer is mom to two daughters (one teen and one young adult) who regularly dispense love, affection and brutally honest fashion advice. She’s been married for 26 years to an exceedingly patient guy she picked up in church. Elizabeth writes about faith, food and family (with some occasional funny thrown in) at Guilty Chocoholic Mama and on Facebook and Twitter, and is the author of Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.
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