Why our college students still need us

Written by Elizabeth Spencer
Published on August 04, 2023

My college student bought a rolling cart for her dorm one year. On move-in day, she cleared a space on her crowded suite floor and took the cart out of its packaging. Or, rather, she removed many pieces from a box of what could conceivably turn into a cart.

I watched her approach this project from my vantage point on top of her bunk bed, which I was making up for her—not because she couldn’t do it herself, but because my own mom has long insisted mothers are supposed to make up their kids’ beds when they move to a new place. I was trying to honor my maternal heritage. 

I observed my daughter methodically tackling her work. She did not ask for my help. She did not need it. She approached that cart the same way I imagined she’d approach the rest of her college career: gathering supplies, taking instruction, getting organized, and setting to work. Along the way, she made some mistakes and had to start some things over, but in the end, she got the job done.

And yet, there were things she still needed from her dad and me. We let our college students go, and this is right. But they are still connected to us, and this is also right. 

Our big kids continue to need us not because we have somehow failed as their parents, but because we have succeeded in building trust and relationship with them. 

Our college students still need our prayers

Praying for our older kids gives us something to do with our worries about them, and with how much we miss them. It turns our inward thoughts upward and hands them off to our children’s Creator, whose plans for them are good. His knowledge of them is complete, and his love for them is even greater than our own. If we get to the point where we feel like “all we can do” is pray for our students, let us never think that is not still active parenting. It is, in fact, the most active parenting there is, because by it, we participate in the activity of heaven.

Our college students still need our encouragement

Our kids’ encouragement tanks do not have a lifetime fill capacity as if we can pour in enough affirming, reassuring, and comforting words by the time they turn eighteen to last them the rest of their lives. The demands of college life—academic, social, emotional, physical—drain these tanks, so our students need us to replenish them regularly. I once roomed with a girl whose parents let her tank run dry and she ended up breaking down. As much as it was within my reasonable and healthy control, I tried to keep my daughter’s encouragement reserves topped off.

Our college students still need our guidance 

Yes, they are smart and independent. Yes, they have to forge their own paths and that’s going to come with some bumpy roads and detours. But we can be a map for our travelers. We can offer “directional assistance,” even if they choose to go their own route. This is why I told my driven student not to follow in my footsteps and make her college experience about a GPA. And every time I saw a post from her about taking a break from studying to hang out with her friends, I thought, maybe my mom GPS steered her right. 

Our college students still need our boundaries

They’re testing limits and drawing their own lines, but they still need to know what we consider right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, secure and risky. They need to know when so much is changing, some things stay the same. They need to know that by maintaining certain boundaries, we aren’t trying to protect them from bad nearly as much as we’re trying to preserve them for good. And they need to know our fierce love for them doesn’t mean we’re going to bail them out of the consequences if they choose to cross those boundary lines.

Our college students still need our reassurance 

Our kids are being hit with a slew of choices every day: which classes to take, which major to choose, which friends to make, which (if any) romantic relationships to pursue, which passions to feed now and which are best put on hold for the future. They’re processing all these options with still under-developed brains. They need our assurance that every decision doesn’t come down to all right or all wrong. They need to know that even unintentional “bad” choices can result in good outcomes. They need to know we’re rooting for them and we believe in them, especially when they don’t believe in themselves.

Our college students still need our presence

They need to hear from us, even when they don’t respond (much). They need to know home is still a safe, welcoming place. They need to know who we’ve always been for them hasn’t changed overnight, even if they feel like they have. 

Our college students still need our help

For all their ability and responsibility, they’re still kids in many respects, and they’re still always our kids. That status doesn’t get checked at the dorm room door. So go ahead and send the care package. Make a phone call for them that they don’t want to make. Crawl up on that loft bed and wrestle the sheets onto it—and while you’re up there, enjoy the view of what they’re doing on their own.

Our college students still need our love

It’s what they needed before they were college students. It’s what they’ll need after they’re done being college students (whatever “done” looks like and whenever it happens). And love—tough, unconditional, and otherwise—is what they still need now, not because we’ve missed something along the way as parents, but because we’ve hit what matters most. 

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Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer has been married for 28 years to an exceedingly patient husband and is mom to two young adult daughters who regularly dispense love, affection, and honest fashion advice. She writes about faith, food, and family (with some occasional funny thrown in) at Guilty Chocoholic Mama and also on various online sites including Crosswalk.com. She is the author of the devotional book Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen, available on Amazon. She can be reached by email at spencerejoy@gmail.com.

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