Tell me more: What I did right—and wrong—in my son’s first month at college

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Sep 30, 2019

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Know someone navigating a new parenting phase this fall? Share this list (consider pairing it with a coffee gift card!) to help family and friends grow together as their kids grow up. Find more great conversation starters in our Tell me more blog post series.

It was my first extended FaceTime with our college freshman son. Only five days had passed since my husband Dave and I had helped Nathan move into his dorm.

But Nathan—and our relationship with him—already felt different.

Nathan seemed more independent and mature. He wanted to share about his orientation week, and his new classes and friends, but the temperature of the conversation had changed. Our connection felt a few degrees less “parental” and a few degrees more “peer.”

In our new book, Steve Argue and I define Growing With parenting as “a mutual journey of intentional growth for both parents and our children that trusts God to transform us all.” Dave and I have tried to embody that definition of parenting since Nathan, our oldest, was born. But this first month of college was a crash course in that parenting posture’s key phrases, especially “mutual journey,” “intentional growth,” and “trusting God.”

As I find with every new parenting phase, Nathan’s first month at college gave me a chance to respond with agility to the young person maturing before me. Some days I succeeded; other days, not so much. But as I sense the Holy Spirit transforming me and my parenting, I’m encouraged that one of the most powerful gifts we give our kids is our own growth.

Tweet: One of the most powerful gifts we give young people is our own growth.

I hope you can learn from my parenting errors and avoid these 3 mistakes I’ve made during my son’s first month in college:

1. Being “overly helpful.”

My brother and I regularly joke about how our mom can be “overly helpful.” Now I’m seeing that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Two weeks ago I was overly helpful in trying to help Nathan with a last-minute Amazon order, and he wisely let me know it. Last week I was overly helpful as I made suggestions to him about showing his sister around campus during a visit. I’m hearing Nathan say, “I got it covered” more often, which is his (fairly polite) way of saying that I need to back off and let him figure it out.

2. Projecting my own college experience onto his.

I didn’t realize it before Nathan left for college, but now I’m seeing how much I hope Nathan replicates my college experience—full of the type of friends, fellowship, and service that transformed me. But that was 30 years ago. And Nathan is not Kara. Given those two realities, I need to let Nathan chart his own path—full of his own trials and triumphs. He will make both better and worse choices than me, and that’s okay; they are his choices to make, and God will use the good, bad, and ugly to shape his character.

3. Overreacting.

We’ve already gotten the “I think I’m going to change my major” text. We’re fine with Nathan choosing the major he feels God calling him to, but he’s wanted to pursue the same field for the last four years. So hearing he was changing his major on his second day of class was a bit jarring. We immediately grabbed for our phones and asked him to talk to us before making any unalterable decisions.

It turns out he’s now more interested in a different major in the engineering department (so it wasn’t as big of a switch as it initially seemed), but that text caused an internal panic in me that highlights my tendency to overreact. And while Nathan has made plenty of decisions I love this month, there have been a few small-ish choices I wish he had done differently. I’ve found myself ruminating on those few choices, which exemplifies my tendency to “focus on a dark spot on a white wall.” Ninety-nine things can be going well and I often end up worrying—and working on—the one that isn’t. Falling into that trap is almost always a sign that I’m losing perspective and not resting in God as much as I could.

Against the backdrop of those mistakes, there have been some victories.

Here are the 8 choices that I am glad I’ve made this month:

1. Praying holistically for our son.

I feel a new determination to pray for my boy. Every morning, I try to pray for each of my kids physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. But with a son in college, that list of prayer requests is growing in size and specificity. I also find myself praying for Nathan more throughout the day, which also nudges me to pray more for our two teenage daughters still at home.

2. Trusting our parenting.

This was one of the major themes in the afternoon parent orientation Dave and I attended at Nathan’s university after parting from him. “Trust your parenting.” I’ve repeated that phrase to myself regularly, and it reminds me of the deep roots that Dave and I have intentionally planted over the years.

3. Trusting our son.

As I’ve prayed for Nathan, this has been one of the primary messages I’ve sensed the Holy Spirit impressing upon me. “Trust your boy. You know him and you know the choices he will make.”

4. Asking as few probing questions as possible.

I have no idea what my son has eaten this last month. None. I hope some vegetables and fruits have squeezed in here and there. But as much as I would love to know, that’s not my top priority. Asking too many questions could feel invasive, so I’d rather focus my questions on what I care most about—which means faith and friendship, and not food.

5. Sending care packages and notes.

I’ve sent brownies, cookies, handmade notes, and store-bought cards to let Nathan know I’m thinking of him. He doesn’t thank me every time, but he thanks me enough to know that receiving a gift from home is meaningful to him. It may be even more meaningful to me as it helps me feel like I’m tangibly expressing my love for one of my favorite people on the planet.

6. Being OK when he doesn’t text back.

I’ll be honest: I wish my son would text me back every time I text him, even when my texts don’t contain a question. Most of the time he does, but sometimes he doesn’t. I learned from a wise parent we interviewed in our Growing With podcast series to be grateful for the communication I have with my son instead of resenting the communication I don’t.

7. Keeping a list of things to talk with him about.

I’m a fan of lists (as evident by the list I’m creating in this post). On our very first FaceTime with Nathan in college, I wanted to update him on what had happened at home but my mind went blank. It was only after we ended the video that I thought of the 10:00 PM “flying a remote-controlled helicopter in our backyard that went in the pool so Jessica dove in after it” hilarious incident that he had missed and I wanted him to know about.

So now I keep a list of experiences I want to share with Nathan, as well as questions I want to ask him (keeping point #4 in mind). Keeping a list helps me ask him a handful of questions in one call instead of one at a time by text throughout the week (which I think could more likely both annoy him and go unanswered).

8. Not triangulating with his siblings.

Nathan has a great relationship with both Krista and Jessica. In fact, his first night at college, he called Krista—and not us. It took everything in me not to ask Krista afterward what they talked about. But just as Dave and I have always prioritized our kids’ relationships with each other (including offering to cover the cost if they walk to Starbucks or grab ice cream without us), we want to prioritize our kids’ communication with each other.

Parenting is not a solo sport. We all need a team. From quick texts among friends celebrating exciting next steps to tearing up over coffee as we commiserate, I’ve needed my friends. If you’re navigating the first year of college, or other major teenage and young adult transitions, we’ve recently released the Growing With Small Group Guide to give you the encouragement and conversation tool you need to know you’re not alone. Whether it’s through a structured small group or conversations while jogging, parents nationwide are finding both practical ideas and new hope by journeying with others through this guide.

At the heart of Growing With parenting lies our conviction that parenting is one of God’s best pathways to transform us. This last month’s parenting has revealed more of both my control-filled fear and my courage-building faith. I’m sure the next month will do the same. And the month after that. And the month after that. And in not too many months, our now eleventh-grader will transition to college also. Through every parenting transition, I pray that my fear will decrease and my faith will develop.

Tweet: Parenting is one of God’s best pathways to transform us. Discover 8 choices you can make when your kid goes to college.

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Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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