Tom Ross: Letting go is serious business

Sending a freshman to college is a bewildering rite of passage

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Letting go is the easiest thing in the world to do -- right? Let go my Eggos! Let go of your anger. Let go of that pork chop -- I saw it first! Let go of the end of the rope. Let go of the Broncos' loss to Jacksonville on Sunday (What in the world was Shanahan thinking about anyway?). It's easy to let go.

So why did I just finish reading a 400-page book on the subject?

Our first trip to Waterville, Maine, was a little disorienting. We had made a previous trip to Maine in 2003. In fact, the college boy had been twice. But through a twist of fate, we had never been to this town, this college campus, this red-brick dormitory. The fact that everything was unfamiliar did little to erase our mild anxiety.

Now, it was the real deal. I was going to leave my only college boy behind in this strange place and would not see him again until the holidays. I was acutely aware of the need to avoid embarrassing the college boy, so I wasn't quite myself during that long weekend in Waterville a couple of weeks ago. Under typical circumstances, I would embarrass him twice in one day and think nothing of it. But this was different.

On the Tuesday morning that he was expected to check into the dorms, we strolled up to the student union and took our place in separate lines. When I got to the front and an older student behind the registration table handed me a thick yellow textbook, I thought for certain I was in the wrong line. But I wasn't. Everyone else in my line looked as if they were in their 50s and had been given their first homework assignment in many autumns. The title of the book is, "Letting Go. A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years." The authors are Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger. They are wise women who have survived the experience of having known and counseled many hundreds of college students. If you have a teenager, or if you already have a college student, this book may preserve your sanity.

If you have no intention of ever having a child, let alone sending the brat to college, then I salute you and suggest you flip to the sports page to find out why Shanahan didn't let Jason Elam kick that field goal on second down. When you find the answer to that question, e-mail it to me and we can both begin to let go of our bitterness.

As for the rest of you, who may have recently overheard your 17-year-old on the cell phone uttering the words, "Yeah, dude, surf's up! I'm thinking about attending the University of Hawaii to study the physics of wave formation," read on. I have important guidance for you.

Basically, Coburn and Treeger want us to know that ever since they were 9 months old and crawling on their bellies, our children have been struggling to break away from us, because that is their job. As for us, our job is to let go gradually and be cool about it. We must be prepared to re-tighten our grip at the least expected moment. But, above all, we must be good listeners.

Just as they did as toddlers, you can expect your college freshman to "venture forth with bravado and periods of newfound confidence and wisdom, only to retreat into times of anxiety and hanging on," Coburn and Treeger write.

The authors warn that some parents may become anxious when their freshman (or freshwoman, as the case may be) calls home every night to whine on the telephone because they aren't getting along with their roommate's boyfriend, they can't get their eggs over easy in the dining hall and their advisor didn't get them into the class they wanted to take on "The Early 21st Century Poetry of Homer (Simpson)." We knew we weren't going to have a similar problem with our college boy. This is the same kid who upon graduating from eighth grade, left for two weeks to Europe with the high school soccer team and didn't get in touch until it was almost time to get on the plane to come home. Can you imagine how tough it is to sit at home, wondering if your 14-year-old is wandering unchaperoned in Amsterdam?

College in Maine? That's nuthin'.

Coburn and Treeger caution modern parents of college freshmen against abusing the cell phone. Young adults can't live without the cell phone, of course. But it can turn into a doggie leash if they must live with the possibility their parents could ring them morning, noon and night. Better to send boxes of homemade brownies via snail mail and mildly inquisitive e-mails that almost seem to feign indifference, and then wait. We tried that strategy and checked our e-mail in-basket perhaps 939 times without any satisfaction. Then one glorious evening we came home from work to find a message on the answering machine. It didn't answer all of our questions, but his voice sounded self-assured and happy. And that's really all we needed.

Don't worry about us -- we're still letting go.

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