After years of pushing your child to get good grades, take part in meaningful extracurricular activities, and choose a college that's the best fit, he's finally getting ready for campus life.
But is he ready to live away from home? Is your teen confident in his ability to handle responsibilities from cooking his own dinner to deciding how to spend his time? Are you confident in his ability to handle those responsibilities?
Experts observe that many young adults are ill-equipped for life away from their parents. "Today's child seems less self-sufficient than in the past," says Dr. Richard Horowitz, author of Family Centered Parenting: Your Guide for Growing Great Families. And M. Stuart Hunter, an associate vice president at the University of South Carolina, notes that most students who have trouble adjusting to college run into difficulties with newfound independence, not harder classes.
The process of raising a teen who can easily handle challenges in the real world starts long before graduation from high school.
Horowitz says even children in elementary school should have chores, with responsibilities gradually growing as they get older. From a young age kids should help with laundry, cooking and grocery shopping. The idea isn't to put children to work, he says, but for every family member to contribute to running the household.
"They feel good about it," Horowitz says. "They feel competent." Plus, living in a dorm is less of a transition for students who grew up planning dinner and cleaning the cat's litter box.
There are plenty of non-academic skills that college students need, but here are five of the most important:
- Setting priorities. Prompt your kids to think about why they're going to college in the first place, Hunter advises – and going just because everyone else is doesn't count. Students need specific educational goals or at least know they need to seek help figuring out these goals. Students faced with myriad social and academic opportunities in college should ask themselves, "Does what I'm choosing to do advance me toward the goals I'm setting for myself?" Hunter says you can encourage priority-setting earlier by asking your kids why they want to join certain clubs at high school or what they like about colleges they're considering.
- Handling stress. Shari Fish, a Houston wellness coach who runs workshops for girls heading to college, says managing stress is a key skill for college freshmen living with new people in a new place. The summer before college, Fish says, encourage your child to include adequate sleep and exercise as part of her schedule so it becomes routine. Balancing exercise and sleep in college goes a long way toward managing stress. Fish also advises talking to your child about how she'll handle inevitable challenges, like homesickness or different weather in another part of the country.
- Food preparation. Marilyn Swierk, former president of the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences, advises teaching your teen how to make at least three simple meals and shop for good food rather than junk. Fish adds that college freshmen should know how to find healthful options in a dining hall and prepare snacks with just a microwave and a dorm-sized refrigerator.
- Caring for clothes. Show your teens how to do laundry long before they pack for college, Swierk says. Tell them about separating lights and darks and folding clothes right out of the dryer so they don't get wrinkled. Don't assume that they know to keep bleach away from colored clothes. Also teach them how to complete basic clothing repairs like fixing a hem and sewing on a button.
- Managing money. Swierk says high school graduates need to know how to balance a checkbook and how to avoid paying bills late. Fortunately, life is full of chances to teach kids about money. You can give younger children an allowance and encourage your teen to find a part-time job. She also advises taking your children when you buy groceries or a car and talking to them about how much everything costs.
Swierk, who used to teach family and consumer science in Warwick, R.I., believes every high school student should take at least a semester-long life-skills class. If one isn't available at your child's school, she says, encourage the school to offer it. These classes should include lessons on shopping, renting an apartment, health care and more, she says.
Horowitz says it can be hard for students to feel ready to live on their own of they've always lived in a controlled environment. You can help by encouraging your kids to get a job or volunteer as teens. This responsibility will teach them how to work as a team and take direction from a supervisor.
And before you drive your child to campus, Hunter says, agree with him on how often you'll communicate and how. If he knows you two will chat online every Sunday afternoon, he'll be less likely to come to you with every crisis.