It’s been weeks or months since that fateful day. When you dropped your child off at college and tried valiantly not to break into a full-blown ugly cry. Whether you’re doing cartwheels in your living room to celebrate, or still getting choked up when you walk past their empty bedroom, chances are you’re looking forward to seeing your student. Which is why visiting them on campus is a great way to reconnect. But before you jump in the car or hop on a plane, recognize that your college student’s world is vastly different than the home they left. And so are they. Here are some tips to keep in mind when visiting your student in their new campus home.
Set Realistic Expectations for Yourself
When I first visited my twins at their respective campuses in different states, the best part was reuniting with an all-encompassing hug. Arms wrapped tightly around each of them, I felt like all was right in the world.
Lest you think that visiting your college student is all hugs, sunshine and rainbows, it’s important to remind yourself that they have been living on their own for a while now. Which means if you envision spending every waking moment with them, chances are they have plans of their own.
When we visited our daughter at college for the first time, we had our Hallmark-worthy reunion, and then took her out to dinner. After which, she announced that she was meeting some friends to go swing dancing. Huh. Certainly didn’t expect that. What followed was a cacophony of emotions. Pride that she had found her people and had created her own life on campus, mixed with a tinge of sadness at her newfound independence.
One way to avoid disappointment is to set realistic expectations before you visit. Remind yourself that your college student will have other social opportunities, along with studying (hopefully) and that is perfectly fine. Your goal shouldn’t be to monopolize their time, but to make the most of whatever time they are willing to give. It’s just as important to meet their friends or let them show you around campus as it is to spend time alone with your student. Remember, the purpose of the visit is to get a glimpse into their new world, not conquer it.
One thing my husband and I learned is to embrace downtime when visiting our kids. We will stroll around town and explore local boutiques, cafes and coffee shops, while taking in the unique energy that only a college environment can exude. Or if the weather isn’t cooperating, we’ll spend a few languid hours reading in the quiet of our hotel room. And since most university rec centers offer free or reduced-rate day passes to parents of students, I often take advantage of the chance to squeeze in a workout. We are after all, helping support said fitness centers with our tuition payments.
Let Them Take the Lead
Since you will be spending the day or weekend on their home turf, ask your student the kinds of things they would like to do during your visit. They probably have some favorite places they want to share with you, not to mention the opportunity to eat a meal that isn’t served in a dining hall. By letting them take the lead on the weekend’s festivities, you can get a sense of how much, or little, time they want to spend with you. It is especially helpful if you discuss this before you visit, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.
When we visited our son, a Division I swimmer, at college for the first time, it was during a weekend-long swim meet. Prelims were held in the morning, after a warm-up swim, with finals in the afternoon for three consecutive days. Our only chance to see our son was a quick lunch between the morning and afternoon sessions.
As the weekend came to a close, I realized we had spent more time with the parents of the other swimmers than our son. The irony? He was perfectly content. Thrilled to have his parents cheering him on from the stands and buying him lunch, while he spent the rest of the time with his teammates.
Was I disappointed? Of course. I had assumed we would see him for lunch and dinner each night. Which leads to another important nugget of wisdom when visiting your collegian – never assume how much you’re going to see them. Leave it up to them and then sit back and be grateful for whatever time you have.
Saying Goodbye Again
After spending time with your college student, no matter how limited, the hardest part is saying goodbye again. While it isn’t as painful as when you first dropped them off, it does feel a bit like ripping off a Band-Aid. Less of an ache and more of a sting, saying goodbye is a reminder that your collegian has a new and exciting life ahead of them. That doesn’t revolve around you anymore.
One way to help is to have something scheduled to look forward to the first few days after you return home without them. It can be as simple as meeting a friend for coffee, or as elaborate as treating yourself to a massage. If you choose to start counting down until the next time you see your college student, that’s fine too.
Does it get easier with each subsequent visit, either to campus or when your student comes home? A little. But the reality is that if they are happy and thriving, each time you say goodbye you feel a little more distance as they morph into the adults that you had always hoped they’d become. And isn’t that really the goal of parenting?