What should we do for our grown children?
As a parent of two college-age children, I need to control a tendency to be nostalgic. To feel nostalgia is not merely to fondly recall the past, but rather to feel painfully cut off from it. Looking at pictures of my seven-year-olds posing on a beach in Cornwall, England in 2004, my first impulse is to want to go back to that beach and have some more fun with them. Indulging in those thoughts, I can feel as if those were children other than the ones I have now, children to whom I no longer have access. I have to remind myself that the kids on the beach are still fully accessible; they have just changed a lot, and we are no longer on the beach.
In fact, for most of the past year they have been away—the culmination of several years of planning. They turned eighteen, becoming adults in the eyes of the world—ready to vote, to join the army, to be ID’ed at airports. And then they went and turned nineteen. In the lead-up to their departure for college, I was intensely focused on where they would go and what our lives would be like without them. All the parents I know have had the same focus—on the "Which college?” question, and then on the fact of imminent separation, and then on their own lives as empty (or increasingly empty) nesters.
Of course, parents of college-bound kids have the anxieties associated with a certain kind of privilege. Parents experience separation from their grown-up children in many other ways. Some eighteen- year-olds dropped out of high school years earlier and went on to employment, unemployment, or even parenthood. Some eighteen- year-olds enlist in the military, or emigrate to the other side of the globe. It would be understandable if parents found the latter circumstances challenging, but they also find sending their kids off to college challenging. Why?