To the Parents of a College Freshman: An Open Letter From Their Chaplain

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Dear Parent,

I know that this can be a really difficult day/week/month. Sometimes it is made sad by your son/daughter’s excitement. It is always ridden with anxiety.

Today your relationship changes. You are still their parent. You always will be. You don’t have to worry about “losing” them. And don’t let the fear of losing them cause you to not let them grow up. They are ready to not have curfew, ask permission to stay up until 2 AM, or tell you whether they did their homework. They NEED to make decisions about majors, classes, and roommate choices on their own. If you give them enough freedom on these decisions then they may even take joy in asking your opinion. And they may even learn to do that for big decisions for their entire life.

Just like you get nervous when they get too excited about leaving, they can be hurt when you are too quick to change that room into a new office, sister’s bedroom, or sewing room. You really should leave everything the same until they have come home a few times. There is an odd dynamic that happens. You are ready to not cook all their meals and bug them about getting ready for school. But you don’t want them to stop asking your permission though. They are ready for you to leave them alone when they are watching movies until early morning. But they still need you to be there when the car breaks down.

This all has religious implications as well. Students are going to explore during college. Things change when you live down the hall from a Muslim that prays every morning and evening and your roommate is a Catholic that breaks all stereo-types with their love of God and Scripture. They also are going to have their faith challenged by professors, whether they go to a religious or secular school. Encourage your son or daughter to establish some standards for themselves regarding practices and friends. Let them figure out what will be a sign for them that they are being faithful to God. If they say “I will pray everyday” and nothing more, then you can call them out for not taking regular public worship and accountability to the community seriously enough. But don’t tell them that they have to join a certain church and never try out the others. Help your Catholic daughter understand the consequences (Eucharist, marriage, etc.) of joining that baptist church. Help your Pentecostal son understand how the church will think of them when they join that Methodist church. But if they worship regularly and want to love God, then you might be glad that they are finding their way. You can trust God to draw them to himself. It’s God’s job to save them, not yours. You have done your part and you can still have (a more limited) role from now on.

So here is the deal: you have to find new normals and so do they. This is going to be hard, but it isn’t going to damage your relationship. Eighty years ago your son or daughter would have been married, have two children, and own their own business by this age. Encourage them to take risks. Be there to pick them up when they fall. Get out of the way.

Grace and Peace,
The Chaplain

PS. Don’t hesitate to call me. I’m not going to tell your kid what you think I should, but I’m glad to listen and be your pastor, too. This is no less a time of discipleship and growth for you than it is for your child.

Update: Since writing this post I have also written an “open letter” to the new students themselves. You can read that here:To a New College Freshman: An Open Letter from the University Chaplain

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