Start a real conversation with your college student!Marlene Kern Fischer
The summer before my oldest son left for college he seemed on a mission to make sure we didn’t miss him.
He’d never been an easy child, and the time leading up to his departure was particularly contentious. I was pretty much counting down the days until he was gone. I’ve since learned that this is not a unique situation — many parents and children find their relationships strained in the months leading up to college.
There were things I wanted to say to my son and advice I wanted to impart; however, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t listen. Since I am better with the written word, I sat down and wrote him a letter. Thus began the tradition of sending my sons off to school each year with a note from me.
That first letter (which I hid in one of his bags) detailed my hopes for my son as he embarked on his college career along with typical mom recommendations: get enough sleep, don’t procrastinate, be respectful of women, etc. Knowing his strengths and weaknesses so well, I tailored the letter to include everything I could think of — it was the kitchen sink of advice notes. I hoped that he could read between the lines, which basically said, “I love you, I love you, I love you. Please come back to me in one piece.” When he found and read the letter, he called and thanked me.
The next year I sent another note; based on his freshman year performance I had further encouraging (as well as admonishing) words. I told him how we hoped to hear from him more than we had the year before and that, if he had his eye on graduate school, he would need to work harder. The note was shorter than the first one — in fact, as the years went on, I discovered I had less and less to say to him. He was growing up and doing a fine job of figuring things out.
It’s difficult to find the exact right words, the ones which might actually make a lasting impression. In the end I suppose it’s less about what I actually say and more about having them know I was (and always am) thinking about them.
I continued the tradition through his law school years. By then the letters were basically reminders to do his laundry before he ran out of underwear and clean his apartment once in a while. And always, I told him how incredibly proud I was of him. When we visited him at school, he was wearing a bathing suit because he had indeed run out of underwear and his apartment was pretty grubby. But he was happy, had made a few great friends, and his grades were good. What more could I ask for?
When I sent my second son off to college five years after his brother, he too got a handwritten letter. His note had some of the same recommendations I'd given my oldest, but there were also many different ones since he is a very different person. I tried to make the letter long enough to include all the things I wanted to say yet short enough to ensure he wouldn’t get bored halfway through and toss it in the garbage. I reminded him to take his allergy medications and, even though he had a girlfriend, to go out and not just stay in his room Facetiming with her. Once again, I made an impassioned plea for communication, either through phone calls, texts or smoke signals (I’m really not that hard to please).
This summer I will compose a note for my youngest son as he departs for school. I’ve already begun writing it in my head. His letter will include some advice about putting himself out there socially as well as studying without the distraction of watching sports on his devices. I already know that it’s difficult to find the exact right words, the ones which might actually make a lasting impression. In the end I suppose it’s less about what I actually say and more about having them know I was (and always am) thinking about them.
Not much in the way of material items came home with my oldest son from college; he had pretty much destroyed or lost most of the stuff we’d purchased four years earlier. He did bring home his Tempur-Pedic pillow and … those notes. I was deeply touched to discover he'd saved every single one of the letters I had written him. In fact, I mist up thinking about it. I guess they meant as much to him as they did to me.
My oldest son is now a full adult with a job and a fiancé. I don’t write him letters anymore, but I do still offer words of advice and encouragement. I know that, even when he pretends not to be, he’s still listening.