Emptying the Nest Into the College Dorm Room

Here at UT, campus move-in begins today. But it’s not all about the students—it’s about the parents, too. Two mothers offer tips from experience.

Parenthood has two big transitions: when our children arrive and when they leave. We managed the first, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, and now we are facing the second. Our children are leaving for college—a moment we have looked forward to and dreaded for almost two decades.

Our collective advice spans the gamut from the very practical to the very personal, from the trivial to the monumental. Our job as parents is to leave them with both the right size sheets and a sense that they are well equipped for this next, independent stage of life. The challenges are no greater or lesser than when they arrived 18 years ago.

Where to start:

  • If you haven’t already gotten a reservation at a hotel for drop-offs, visiting days, and graduation, you are probably too late. Reserve as soon as your son or daughter chooses a college.
  • In all the excitement of move-in day, remember to eat. A day full of packing and unpacking can go south very quickly when it’s suddenly 4 p.m. and energy levels are low. Nobody wants a meltdown in front of his new roommate!
  • Have some practice sessions doing laundry at home before attempting this daring task for the first time at school. And yes, bringing a cheat sheet along is just fine. To the parents whose children have conned them into paying for university laundry service, when they complain about the laundry service losing or ruining their clothing, remind them that they could do it themselves.
  • Tell her to take everything out of her pockets when she does her laundry. Ink stains do not enhance any clothing item.
  • When he returns for the summer, designate a place in your house for all the “stuff” that comes home and will go right back in the fall. Otherwise, with multiple kids, it gets lost among your other things as they dump stuff all over the house.

What they might need:

  • You can buy a hand vac and cleaning materials, but she will never use them. It is for you to use when you visit.
  • First thing to buy is a mattress cover to keep bed bugs out. It zips the mattress in and you have no worries, at least about bed bugs.
  • Register at Bed Bath & Beyond to pick up at the location nearest to his dorm. Over-register for items, because you don’t have to buy everything you picked out. It is just conveniently waiting for you on site if you want to make the purchase.
  • Buy earphones in case a roommate is listening to music or only goes to sleep with the TV on.
  • Bring a simple tool kit with a hammer, screwdriver, and the like. It will be borrowed a lot.

Be healthy:

  • Send throat lozenges, pain reliever, and a thermometer. And think about asking your child to sign a health release form so that you can talk with the infirmary nurse.
  • Find the closest 24-hour pharmacy—not just for setting your daughter up but in case she needs something in the middle of the night. At 3 a.m. when she needs a pharmacy, you and she will be glad you located it in advance.
  • College health centers might be limited, so ask other parents whose kids are older or residents of the town your child will be in. Having a great internist available when your kid is really sick and far from home is very helpful. Don’t forget to fax their health records to get them established long before your child might need the help.

Enlist tech support:

  • Get two flash drives to back up the computer. There’s nothing worse than a call at 2 a.m. telling you his computer crashed with his 20-page paper on it!
  • Try to get contact info for the university tech help center. The wireless printers never work on move-in day.
  • She really only need one printer per room. So all of those free printers that come along with the new Mac you’ll be buying for college? Take the cash instead if one of the roommates is bringing a wireless printer.
  • Set up Find My iPhone/iPad/iMac. Sadly, you will probably need to use it.

And most important, be Mom and Dad Support:

  • Don’t project your angst. They have enough on their minds with new roommates and surroundings. The details, in time, will take care of themselves.
  • Take their lead, even though you have more experience. This is their moment.
  • Put your need to be needed second to their need to find their own way.
  • It doesn’t all have to be done perfectly—even if it’s easier. This is their turn to figure out how they like their room to look, how to arrange their books; don’t take that away from them.
  • Try not to worry too much…and don’t keep calling. You might even ask how often they would like to speak at the beginning.
  • Be prepared for random phone calls and then quick hang-ups. These will come mostly from girls who are walking alone across campus and don’t like to “walk alone.” Therefore, you become their walking buddy. As soon as they reach their destination or bump into a friend, expect the “gotta go now.” Take whatever you can get, though.
  • Send cards, notes, and newspaper articles—via postal service.

In one of the wisest pieces of college parenting advice that we have ever seen, Emory University professor Marshall P. Duke gives this advice:

It is a moment that comes along once in a lifetime. Each child only starts college once. Given the uniqueness of the day, it falls into the category that includes wedding days, special anniversaries, even days on which family losses occurred — big days — days that stick in our memories throughout life. Such moments are rare. They have power. They give us as parents one-time opportunities to say things to our children that will stick with them not only because of what is said, but because of when it is said.

Here is what I tell the parents: think of what you want to tell your children when you finally take leave of them and they go off to their dorm and the beginning of their new chapter in life and you set out for the slightly emptier house that you will now live in. What thoughts, feelings and advice do you want to stick? “Always make your bed!”? “Don’t wear your hair that way!”? Surely not. This is a moment to tell them the big things. Things you feel about them as children, as people. Wise things. Things that have guided you in your life. Ways that you hope they will live. Ways that you hope they will be. Big things. Life-level things.

And, finally, plan a fun activity for yourself the day after you send or drop your child off so that you don’t notice how quiet the house is.

Mary Dell Harrington, BA ’78, Life Member, is a former NBC and Lifetime executive. The mother of a 22-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter, she now contributes to Next Avenue and the Huffington Post and runs a blog about empty-nest parenting with author Lisa Endlich Heffernan. This piece was first published by that blog, Grown and Flown.

Top: photo by TBK. Below: Harrington, left, and Heffernan. Courtesy Mary Dell Harrington.



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