4 Tips for Sending Kids off to College with a Smile by Karen Dawkins

BonBon Break



The milestones in a child’s life cause moms around the world to celebrate. Facebook posts scream our delight when baby finally sleeps through the night. We post pictures of the first day of kindergarten, a great play on the sports field, dance recitals, driving a car, and prom. Eventually, the kids grow up and we proudly share graduation pictures and share college decisions.


Then they move away. Our excitement about graduation and college decisions made is replaced with empty space. We can’t snap a quick picture anymore, because they’re gone. Off to college to tell their own story, unedited by mom. We’re left behind, with holes in our heart, the story not over. It’s just no longer ours to share.


How does a mom let go — and do it well?


We just made this journey; our son moved from our home in North Carolina to college in Alabama, nine long hours away. Thanks to wonderful friends who traveled this path ahead of me, I was (mostly) ready. Overall, so says my son, I did well.


TIP #1: Successfully Navigate Senior Year


Remember it’s your child’s life, not yours. The breakaway begins during the senior year of high school. As your student sorts through college decisions, he needs you to be his sounding board, but he doesn’t need you doing his applications or writing his essays. He needs to do those himself. Be willing to proofread essays and listen to ideas, but he needs to do the work.

As our son’s senior year approached, another young man shared with me, “My mom pretty much took over my college applications. I wasn’t even sure where all I applied. Don’t make that mistake. It’s his decision.”

Instead, help your student prepare a plan of attack that considers all the deadlines. Be available to proofread application essays, provide financial information for student loan applications and be a sounding board, but don’t do it for them. They need to know they can manage on their own.


Be strong. Once the college decision is made, friends and family will ask, often, how you’re doing. People expect you to mope and mourn your loss. It’s tempting to buy into that mindset, but your child needs to know you believe in him. Show it!

Friends told me to cry behind closed doors over my loss, but to send a message of confidence before my child. To be honest, I truly believed my son was ready for this phase of life and found myself excited right along with him. More than once, he thanked me for my attitude. As in all attitudes, they grow. The more I showed my confidence in him, the more excited we both became. The more excited we were, the more confident he — and I became. We truly enjoyed the summer, right up to dorm move-in day.


TIP #2: Confidently Negotiate Move-in Day

I’ll be honest, move-in day is a bit tougher. Okay, a whole lot tougher. I reminded myself often that he did well in high school and always enjoyed summer camp. When we dropped him off at college, it felt a lot like summer camp. I went with that feeling. Whatever it takes, right?

As your child packs for college and the dorm, remember this is her home, not yours. What you consider necessary might mean nothing to him. Provide common sense logistics, like how much room is available in the car, but let your child decide what to pack.

When setting up the room, remember this is your young adult’s home, not yours (the repetition here IS intentional). Ask how you can help. Wait patiently for instruction. Bite your tongue — hard, if necessary — when you disagree with a decision. When they ask for advice, offer it — but don’t go overboard. Our son and his roommate had planned how to arrange their room, but in reality the plan didn’t work. They tried a few things, then finally asked us adults for some ideas. We moved a few things around and it all came together. The key to success was waiting on them. They don’t need you to do it for them. They need you to help them do it. Big difference!

When it’s time to go, leave well. Let me repeat: Leave well. Consider the message you send with your departure. This is your last chance to show your child — now a young adult — that you believe in him. We wrote our son a note, “No advice. Just know we are proud of who you are and can’t wait to meet the man you become.” We tucked it in a gift bag with his favorite snack foods. At the front entrance to his dorm, we prayed one last time together, hugged and cried (just a little). We said our good-byes and walked away. Inside, I wanted to cry. Outside, I held it together. I didn’t want him to remember this moment sadly. I wanted him to know we believed in him enough to let him go. Confidently.

One mom told me that making your kid watch you drive away is the absolute worst thing you can do. Imagine them, watching the only thing they’ve ever known fade off into the sunset. She said to let them walk away from you, even if it rips your heart out (which it does). They use your confidence in them to step even higher.


TIP #3: Creatively Fill the Void Left Behind 

Many, many parents told me that the hardest part was the long drive home, knowing the house would forever be quieter. Other parents advised me not to text or call my son, but to let him use the scheduled move-in weekend activities to get to know other students and get familiar with “college living.” Add together emptiness at home and a silent phone, and any mom might crumble.

Instead, celebrate the change. Since our younger kids made the road trip with us to college, we chose to celebrate our new family structure on the way home. Our travel home included a trip to a water park, but any fun activity would work. The mini-vacation (just one night) gave us something to focus on as we drove away from the college. We researched rides and looked ahead to our adventure, which is infinitely better than looking into the rearview mirror and dwelling on the emptiness. (I was horribly sad about leaving one behind, but the diversion really worked.)

Friends of ours, new empty nesters, took vacation the week after moving their kids into their dorms and reconnected as a couple. I’ve got a few years (eleven) before we get there, but I’m confident there’s a luxurious cruise for two in my faraway future.

Our diversion gave me something to do other than sit and wait for word from our son in college. I didn’t text or call him, but followed my friends’ advice and gave him the space he needed to connect with others. Sunday afternoon, he called (finally) to fill us in on his exciting weekend. He was quiet again until Tuesday when he called to ask a favor. By Wednesday, he was calling and texting just like the “old days,” filling me in on his day and sharing humorous stories. I truly believe that giving him this space assured him that we respect his new independence. In respecting him, he feels free to call and text.

This advice, to give him space, was the hardest of all I received to implement. I “twitter stalked” his account, constantly checking for updates, but it was eerily quiet over the weekend). I checked his Facebook repeatedly. I rarely moved five feet away from my phone. However, I did not call, text, tweet or email him. The advice worked.


TIP #4: Thoughtfully Keep in Touch

Going forward, I want my son to know he is still part of our family, that we think about him and miss his presence at home. I want to parent well, even if from afar. To do it well, a few other college moms and I are planning to meet every month or so to assemble care packages for our kids. Each of us will bring items to share among all the boxes. We’ll share our hopes, concerns and stories. We’ll pray for our kids. It doesn’t matter how far away they are, whether an hour or nine or more. Connecting with other college parents and sending the care packages, the students will know they are loved.

We plan to do this mid-September (about a month after move-in when the newness wears off), late October (as the weather cools and midterms begin), and late November (to prepare for finals).

Technology helps too. Facebook, Facetime, Twitter, email and texts provide ample opportunity to connect. Our daughter is too young for facebook, but she sends her brother messages through my account. Our younger son texts to fill our college son in on the happenings at the local high school. My husband has resumed his long-dormant twitter account to share funny thoughts — in 140 characters or less. Not often, just enough to let him know we haven’t forgotten him.

The transition from high school to college affects the whole family. Take time to consider the message your attitudes and actions send to your student. Remember that everyone, even siblings, must adjust to the changes. Thoughtfully walking through the journey can result in a successful transition for the entire family.

About Karen: Karen and her family have learned the art of enjoying the travel experience. She shares humorous anecdotes from her own experiences and uses them to equip the reader to travel better. Her blog offers: Step-by-step “how to’s” for each element of the vacation planning process, practical advice on how to evaluate options in light of your family’s needs, wish-lists, and finances, and destination-specific planning aids. You can follow Karen’s travel advice on Facebook & Twitter.


4 Tips for Sending Kids off to College with a Smile was written by Karen Dawkins of Family Travel on a Budget exclusively for Bonbon Break Media, LLC