A Letter to the Parents of College Freshmen
Such terrible advice tends to be written by parents who are still raising children. The older I get, the more I’m inclined to listen to wise and seasoned souls while pushing books and blogs written by younger parents way off to the side.
Those of us who try to write from the middle of things may be able to describe the details of how a situation feels with more accuracy, and we might be able to share little tips that are keeping us afloat, but we can’t offer any long-term perspective on the whole of child rearing. Our hearts (and identities) are still so engaged in our kids that we can’t tell our story without trying to talk ourselves into or out of something we are trying to believe. Besides, kids need some privacy for growing up.
Over the past few years, I’ve taken a big break from writing about raising my kids for those reasons. As my teenagers got older, I began to realize how much of my own worth I had bound to them and their choices, and I wanted to give them freedom to walk in whatever plan God had for their lives without being dissected by my public evaluation.
But today as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, looking at pictures of so many parents dropping kids off at college, I found myself wanting to reach out to those parents with some of the lessons I have learned (through many tears) over this past year while my oldest son has been away.
These lessons probably won’t apply to all families. I don’t think all of them will even apply to my second child, or maybe even my third. My kids have strong personalities, all different in the risks they take and the questions they ask. But I still feel like some of this might be helpful to a few mothers who are gasping for air during the first few weeks of separation.
So here we go: four beliefs I used to hold about parenting a college freshman, and what I've learned the hard way.
1. The choices my kid makes at college define me as a parent.
Well, maybe. But that doesn’t necessarily work the way I first thought it did.
College isn’t some sort of final parenting assessment where my kid has to jump through a bunch of hoops and prove that my morality was lived out well enough that he wants to embrace it. I absolutely get why parents feel like this. I feel that expectation, too, and I feel the guilt of self-blame when my kid doesn’t make the same choices that I would.
For years I’ve been listening to Christian parenting resources that have promised me that if I did my job well, my kids would go off and value the same things I do. However, that’s an incredibly self-centered way to think about things, and it reduces our children to too few dimensions.
It makes them extensions of us instead of independent adults who have to wrestle with a living God. It puts them under pressures that are unfair and unhealthy, asking them to answer questions for us about ourselves, when this is the season of life when they need to be answering questions about their own identities.
Besides, a lot of the teachers who taught us that if we did “X” as parents our kids would do “Y” (Bill Gothard, Doug Philips etc.) have now been exposed as perverts. Sure, as a young, insecure parent, it was comforting to be sold the idea that we could create a safe little social amoeba that would protect our children from evil, but that promise wasn’t true -- there’s no antidote for living in a messed up world. And folks, when strict moral leaders are repeatedly discovered feeling up teenage girls, that’s a pretty strong indicator that we’ve put our faith in a faulty religious system instead of in a living God.
Maybe my identity as a parent is not about my kid’s choices so much as it is about my unconditional love. We’ve been telling our kids all these years we are committed to them no matter what. What if they need to see this is true? We’ve been telling them God is powerful and sovereign. What if they need to see us trust while they step out into a realm we cannot control?
What if THEIR performance doesn’t define us, except for the opportunity it provides to function as a backdrop for OUR willingness to trust God?
Yes, it’s difficult to transition from authority figures to coaches of young adults we would rip out our spleens for. But it’s absolutely unfair for young people taking their first steps into a vivid and alluring world to bear the full weight of their parents' identities. For their sake, we have to find an internal foundation that doesn’t rely on their questions or experimentation.
2. The gospel should make my kid make good choices.
This one is so tempting, but it’s totally backwards. In fact, the gospel exists because my kids are going to make some bad choices.
As a mom, I have been so overbearing and so protective for so long, trying to shield my children from every danger and every risk. I really believed that I could be winsome enough to tell them what was out there so that they wouldn’t want to go look for themselves. I wanted to tell them about evil so that they would never have to know it.
But then I remember my first two years of college. I remember being in an unhealthy dating relationship, going to a party or two I shouldn’t have gone to, being cocky and crude, flirting and faking it, trying out ideas my parents would have hated, making some rotten, dangerous decisions, and finally getting the news that one of my friends had died in a car wreck.
I remember collapsing in a heap in my dorm room in the dark, disgusted with myself, feeling like a fraud, and despising everything I had tried to make of my own life. This confession was a big step for me (though it felt like dying at the time) because I was a high performer. I could get high grades without much effort, and almost everything I touched worked. For so long, I felt strong, brilliant, and in control.
It took failure and fraud for me to realize that I couldn’t drive the ship alone. I finally saw how much I needed help. Even though I had asked Jesus to live in my heart when I was ten years old, it wasn’t until I was twenty that I saw the first glimmer of what grace actually meant. I had to screw up royally before I could really appreciate what God had given me.
See, I had to find out that I wasn't the hero. And I had to find out that I didn't need to be, because God was standing ready to take on that role. My kids are going to need to find that out, too, and I'm not sure there's an easy way to make that discovery.
3. If my kid can just get through four years of college unscathed, he will be okay later on.
As a parent, I always tend to focus on the immediate danger. I tend to pray like this, “Oh God, please, please, please, please just get him through this next little bit, and then I know we will be in the clear.”
But that’s not the prayer of someone who trusts God big picture. It’s more like wishing on a lucky star.
Lately, I’m watching so many of my peer friends who were “good, moral, religious kids” in their 20’s crash their lives in their 40's. They are having affairs with people decades younger than they are. They are abandoning their kids. They are losing their faith, finally admitting that they have been faking it. It seems like so many folks who sort of held it together for years are now collapsing in a midlife heap.
And as bad as the consequences would have been for those friends to have made ugly mistakes at 19 or 20, the consequences of free fall might be even more severe now. They are now in positions of influence where their weakness is affecting hundreds or thousands of admirers, and where it is impacting children who will never fully recover from the trauma they are living as a result.
So many times over the past few years, I have remembered how it felt to be utterly broken in that dorm room floor, weeping, crying until I was vomiting over what I had become. As I have fought the silent wars women my age tend to fight, I haven’t forgotten that pain, that disgust, that desperation. As bad as it was for me to make those mistakes then, it has been good for me to remember why I never want to make them again.
I don’t have the strength or the selflessness to want this sort of experience for my children. Sometimes I even feel a little jealous of parents whose young adult kids don't ask hard questions, but march faithfully through young adulthood checking off all the religious boxes. Out of fear and fatigue, I want to reel back time and make my children less inquisitive, less bright, less honest.
But that impulse is so terribly wrong. It's wrong, because it's dishonest. It's wrong because it's controlling. It's wrong because it is coveting another person's story while Aslan tells each person only his own. It's wrong because it seeks immediate relief instead of long term good.
If my kids do go through harder stuff in the younger years, I should realize that some vaccines work by injecting a little tiny dose of a lethal disease into a body at an early age, so that later on the body knows how to fight it. Who knows what devastation they might avoid at my age because of painful lessons they've learned in college?
4. I have to keep my kid from doubting God in college.
What does this statement reveal? Does it show that we don’t believe God is going to chase our kids down? That God is going to be shocked and defeated when a thinking young person runs into huge questions? That our children’s experience with God cannot exist if we aren’t preserving it for them?
Almost every single Christian teacher that I respect deeply went through a period of atheism (or serious doubt) in his twenties. And in every single case, those teachers were ultimately expanded by that season, even grown through it, so that they could reach out to others later on.
I would never choose this pathway for my children, but I cannot see the future, or how God might want to use my kids in the world. C.S. Lewis mined his years of secular materialism and rationalism for decades, creating work that has reached millions. He understood atheism, because he had lived it.
If I had been his mother (if I had been alive during that season of his life), would I have wished away all those years? Would I have sacrificed all the fruit that came from them for the sake of my own comfort in the present? Probably so. A mother's love can be so greedy. But how much darker the world would have been, had my wish been granted.
- - -
Moms, as painful as it’s been to learn to trust God with a kid I love more than my own life, it’s been mighty good for me to have to wrestle through some of these battles. When my son started college last year, I was worried about his faith, but fighting through these fears has exposed gaps in my own faith that I had pushed aside.
I feel like I’ve aged ten years in this past twelve months. God has finally pried my hands off the kid I wouldn’t let go. I’ve clung to him (at least internally) like a mother in one of those stories you read about primal tribes -- -where the men of the village charge in and rip a son away from his home for his right of passage into manhood.
Was it Robert Lewis who said, “A boy becomes a man over his mother’s dead body?” I didn’t believe that when I first heard it, but now I do. I have clawed at God, punched at Him, wailed, and gnashed my teeth. "GIVE ME BACK MY KID!" But the truth is, this break needed to happen. There are things he needs to know that I cannot teach him. I have to let the two of them hash it out.
I get so angry with pro-choice advocates acting like a fetus is just an extension of a mother, because a baby is his or her own person. He’s not a gall bladder. He’s a living person who starts life inside another living person. And yet, I have seen my children as extension of me, even outside the womb. I have believed I own them somehow. I have believed I could determine and control too much. It’s been brutal to realize that they belong to God’s will and not my own, and that no matter how big my love is, my love isn’t a remote control. Work has to be done between the Divine and my kids, and I can’t be a part of that conversation right now.
I don’t really believe in baptizing infants (though I respect the covenant theology of why some people do), but I do think there’s a benefit to parents having some sort of moment in which they “turn over” a baby to God. It must have been so comprehensively counterintuitive for Abraham to turn over Isaac, releasing every animal instinct he had to hold close and protect. But there is a verse in Hebrews 11:19 that we sometimes miss, explaining more about this offering: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.“
That’s what you do when you turn your kids over to God. You go against your natural groove. You fight yourself and your fears. You learn to pray different sorts of prayers and trust a God who can do what you cannot — raise your child from whatever death your failures have left upon him. You learn to believe that He is beginning a new story in your child, and that it’s okay if you can’t see how it ends quite yet.