April Cruel

Caution: Graduation Season Ahead

Grads throwing caps

By Susan Lilley

Graduation Season: a primer for parents whose kids are headed to (loud intake of breath) college.

Originally published in Parentwin.com

These days, kids “graduate” a lot. Cap and gown ceremonies mark the exits from  kindergarten, elementary school, and middle school. But no graduation is as life-altering in its high and lows as the big one: high school. This clammy, hormone-lined passageway, celebrated in movies and songs, is both feared and longed for by students and parents alike. And with good reason.

grad girl leaving for college

As a teacher of 80+ college-bound AP Literature students, I see the senior year as a recognizable pattern. At Parents Night in the fall, I try to warn parents about the roller coaster ride they are about to take. But generalities only go so far when you have such diversity in senior students! There’s the girl who gets into multiple Ivy League schools and spends the spring jetting around to various admitted-student events, all while keeping her grades up. She basically glows in the dark. There’s the boy having a nervous breakdown and can barely pass senior year over anxiety about his girlfriend going to college in a different part of the country. There’s the party dude headed to a huge university to join a fraternity of young men exactly like himself in order to strengthen his fortress of homogenous privilege, thus lessening his fear of learning how to cope with human difference.  There’s the budding theatre major who just KNOWS she is going to be the one to break through and make this passion a real career.  There’s the “signed” athlete, experiencing a peak of exaltation that may not be repeated ever, despite his dreams of what lies ahead in college sports. And these are just a few of the senior stories I watch unfold. There are as many narratives as there are graduates, and some don’t have any kind of goal or plan yet. Which is really OK.

Let’s face it—high school is a bubble, and they are about to bust out, come what may. Graduation cards all scream, “Follow your dreams!” and “The sky is the limit!” True, it’s a fantastic milestone. But the immediate future is not a slam dunk. And parents need to know this.

Everyone wants to imagine that their child will LOVE college life and everything will fall into place. But about half the time, that dreamy dream does not play out. And really, how could it? Despite a carefully considered decision, these kids are still very plastic, forming creatures according to brain development experts. So here are a few hard but true things to keep in mind as you get ready to shove your golden young bird out of the nest.

College is a big bunch of personal freedom. We all know this. But the fact is that many kids will not deal well with sudden self-regulation. Kids who have been in charge of their own getting-up-and-out regimen in the morning fare better than most, but it’s still a shock to the system. Nobody to nag you to do homework before fun. Nobody to stock the fridge if you missed dining hall hours. Nobody to care if you come home or not.  Which brings me to the next thing:

College is dangerous. Yes, it really is. Drink-spiking, drunk driving, full on peer-encouraged alcohol poisoning (and serious abuse of other substances), and plenty, plenty of rape culture. Despite the discrediting of the infamous Rolling Stone story of rape at UVA, this is a shockingly pervasive issue all over this land. Misogyny and the dehumanizing of young women is probably more intense in various pockets of American college campuses than anywhere in western culture. It’s hard for the good guys in the crowd too—they feel incredible pressure to join in the fun, whether it’s sexist (or racist) trash talk or worse. This grimness is worth another post entirely, but trust me on this one. If they experience this part of college life, and many will, your kids will probably never tell you the unvarnished truth, because it would make you cry.

Alternate reality: Some kids find their people early, even without the benefit of paid social networks like Greek houses. They form life-long friendships and steer clear of disastrous choices. Hurrah! But they are living in the same petri dish as the others. The culture is unavoidable. Either way, don’t hover. DON’T. They have to figure shit out without you.

Exclusion: If your kid gets sick, pay attention. You might have to swoop in. Campus health centers are notoriously lame. My daughter went to hers when desperately ill during her second semester and was offered either a pregnancy test or narcotic pain killers. I had to bring her home to get the triple threat diagnosis of tonsillitis, strep, and MONO. Yikes.

College will make them different. A year from now, you may hardly recognize your higher ed scholar. Some boys get extremely scruffy and unkempt.  For girls, the weight thing is big. Don’t comment. Gain or lose, the decisions that follow are not always the best, as in “let’s only do SHOTS because it’s less calories than beer or wine.” (Yes, the drinking factor seems to be a given. The question is what kind.) They experiment with styles and personas. I moved my daughter into her freshman dorm with computer cords, cleaning supplies, notebooks, and a poster of the Eiffel Tower. On move-out day in May I carried a chocolate fountain, rose-patterned cowboy boots, and sexy bras I had no part in purchasing.

But they will also change politically and socially, and THAT is some excitement, people. Sophomore year Thanksgiving dinner is often the scene for shocking revelations. Don’t get hot under the collar. This deliberate separation from you is a healthy part of becoming themselves. Love them for it. And warn Grandma.

grad cartoon college

They might F-ing HATE college. Well, it happens. It might be the wrong place at the wrong time–no way to know in advance. They might transfer, take time out, quit and get a job. They will learn, whether they are in college or not. This is huge, crucial figuring-out time, and some kids take longer than others. And there is nothing particularly magical about the year 18. You’ll do yourself and your child a favor if you can be at least kind of OK with this rootless period of questioning and ennui.  Don’t get in the way if you can help it. On the other hand, do not let them languish forever living the life of idle royalty in your home. The more personal responsibility, the better. And the more honesty about all issues above, the better.

Wallow in all the “lasts.” These final days of your child’s at-home adolescence are like fitful dreams. They will be vivid and ephemeral. Your kid will plan endless “last chances” to get together with this or that friend as they take flight, one by one, for brand new territory. And when they are gone, you will be OK. It’s a tough passage; the emotion you will feel is the sister of grief. It flares and wanes and finally changes into a quiet star that burns with nostalgia, intermittent fear, and joy.

But even if it hits you like a spear to the heart, even if this is the last chick out of the nest, keep reminding yourself that you would not have it otherwise. Sit still and think about your own sweet life in this new reality. Where will you put all that energy you have beamed into your progeny for almost two decades? Savor the satisfaction of a job well done; congratulations are in order. Breathe in the freedom. Get ready for a personal renaissance. You are graduating, too.

18 replies »

  1. As one mom who has successfully survived three high school and four college graduations let me just say, I love this essay.

  2. Beautifully written, Ms. Lilley! You have such great perspective on these challenging life milestones. I particularly love this gem: “…There’s the party dude headed to a huge university to join a fraternity of young men exactly like himself in order to strengthen his fortress of homogenous privilege, thus lessening his fear of learning how to cope with human difference.”

  3. Reblogged this on I just have to say… and commented:

    Words of wisdom from Siren Susan Lilley, who is a professor and an English teacher at a prep school. Susan’s work is always an interesting read, whether her topic applies to directly to you or not. And it applies to me. My youngest, Laureli, not only turned down a full ride to Smith, which devastated me, but she also quit college after her first year– stomping my lifelong dreams for her into the ground.
    “Everyone wants to imagine that their child will LOVE college life and everything will fall into place. But about half the time, that dreamy dream does not play out. And really, how could it? Despite a carefully considered decision, these kids are still very plastic, forming creatures according to brain development experts. So here are a few hard but true things to keep in mind as you get ready to shove your golden young bird out of the nest.”

  4. “But the fact is that many kids will not deal well with sudden self-regulation.” The transition is unbelievably difficult for many students, particularly those who kind of skated through high school without really having to schedule themselves for study time and for those whose parents didn’t attend college and who have little idea of what’s expected. I find that appallingly many of the freshmen I see (yes, I teach at a college) do not really know how to study or annotate a textbook and expect professors to hand out study notes or test prep materials. Some professors may do that…most do not.

    Many teens are totally afraid to ask for help. Yep, college health centers and counseling centers are often lame–but being afraid to ask for help in the first place is the biggest reason students struggle. There are tutors, free tutors–and writing centers, study groups, librarians, and all kinds of help–that many students refuse to seek until the struggle’s too obvious to ignore.

    But convincing your child to ask for help? Good luck with that. I couldn’t get my own son to ask for help when he needed it…

  5. The most convincing .This article shows us how we, as parents, need to be attentive to our children, in every age, and tell them shamelessly personal opinion, and give them advice from our experience,

  6. sums up my life right now. My kids are starting to head out as I head to my 30 year college reunion next weekend – at a small liberal arts school I transferred away from. I’m still figuring out what I started figuring back then. So my return will not be all about remembering the good times, but more about how being back there won’t bring up all of those old feelings of failure anymore. It’s about closing a circle. One more circle.