To the Concerned Parent of a College Freshman
What a whirlwind this week has been for you! You’ve planned for months, running through the list of essentials and packing up those extra-long sheets, posters, and bed raisers, only to make numerous trips to Walmart during move-in. You finally realized there were no more errands to run to finalize the dorm room and no more paperwork to turn in, so you looked your son or daughter in the eye, took a deep breath, and said, “I guess it’s time”.
It’s been 15 years since my parents left me at my dorm room at Virginia Tech and I still remember the sadness of the goodbye that would eventually settle into an unnerving reality that things were different now. I loved my parents as much as ever and desired the freedom that becoming an adult brings, but they were no longer going to be there every night to ask how my day was or help me navigate life’s challenges.
Now that the dust has settled from move-in, I’m sure some of these realities are hitting you, the parent, as well. I believe this experience can hit Christian parents especially hard. You’ve “trained your child up in the way he should go”, teaching him God’s law “diligently when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Prov 22:6, Deut 6:7). Now you are sending him off into the world and fear creeps in. “Have I done enough?” you wonder. “Will he walk with Jesus now that he’s on his own?”
Some of the hardest phone calls and messages I receive are from Christian parents, deeply troubled that their student may not choose to join a church or campus ministry or show any interest in following Christ now that they’re out of the house. This breaks my heart, because while I have never sent a child off to college, I am a mother of three little ones, and just recently sent my oldest to kindergarten. “Will she be influenced by the world? Will she continue to love God and love others?” I have wept while pondering the question of whether I am equipping her and discipling her so that she will walk with Christ for a lifetime. Parent, I hear you and understand your concerns. I truly feel for you while you fear what the future could hold for your child and start to realize you can’t control it. From a fellow parent, and most relevantly to you, a campus minister, here are a few suggestions for how to practically care for and guide your college student, as well as process these fears.
Give them space
I know, I know. The piece of advice you probably don’t want to hear but already know to be right. Your student is journeying into adulthood. Their first semester of college, whether they realize it or not, they will begin to figure out who they are and who they want to become. You won’t be doing their laundry anymore, making their meals, or hearing from their professors if they miss class. Give them some space in their spiritual life as well. They are at a point in life where they need to be the ones to decide for themselves if they will invest in a church and campus ministry. Don’t misunderstand me; your input into their lives is still incredibly valuable and will be for the rest of your life! But trust me, unwanted pressure from parents to join a campus ministry is almost always a recipe for rebellion. Give them space and time, ask a lot of questions, and offer a listening ear.
Every year, I get at least a handful of calls or messages from parents telling me they are concerned because their student isn’t showing interest in a campus ministry or church. I welcome these calls! I am your ally and want the best for your child. It’s why our family spends our life on college campuses. Sometimes I am asked by parents to contact students without telling them that the prompting and contact information was from them. I’m happy to do this if I already have a relationship with the student. However, if I’ve never met your son or daughter, a more helpful way to connect us to them would be to give them our contact information or ask if it’s ok if you share their number with us. Part of giving space is having healthy boundaries and letting your student take the initiative. Give them some space, and then incorporate the suggestions below.
Ask for and plan for quality time
Giving your son or daughter space does not mean you are waiving all responsibilities as a parent! Your role in their life looks different now, but you’ll never stop being mom or dad. Think of ways you can connect meaningfully with your student while they’re away at school. Maybe instead of waiting by the phone every afternoon after their 2pm class (because, let’s be honest, you have their class schedule memorized), wondering if you should call or if you’ll hear from them, you could set up a weekly time for a phone call. Preserve your Tuesday mornings or Sunday evenings for that time of connection, and in the meantime, don’t stress about whether you’ll hear from them. I know this isn’t true for every college freshman, but many will miss hearing your voice after day 2! Set up your routine time and be pleasantly surprised when you hear sooner.
If you are concerned about your child’s spiritual health, try not to bring it up in every conversation. Sometimes your daughter will call you needing help with the laundry machines because, remember? You’re not doing it anymore. Don’t try to sneak in a mention of how she should check out Cru or the church down the street in between answers to her actual questions. Rather, ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and seek out unhurried moments of quality time with your child. Bake her favorite dessert together or stay up late for some tea when she visits. If she doesn’t have a car, offer to drive her home for break rather than take the bus.
When I was in middle school my dad would occasionally offer to drive me to school. I quickly learned that these were good for “moments of instruction” and I got a little nervous every time he offered. Then, over time, I realized that he genuinely wanted to spend time with me and that not every car ride was a learning moment. If you build in this quality time throughout the year, don’t pounce with “have you joined a church yet?” after 5 minutes of conversation. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. I bet before long you’ll be talking about her spiritual health without even asking a direct question about it.
Give up the illusion of control
Too often when it comes to discipling our kids, we assume that there’s a formula. You heed the instruction in Proverbs, they memorize the catechism, you do evening prayers and voila! Before you know it you’re sending off a perfectly mature, Jesus-loving 18 year old to college. What we forget is that even the instruction in Proverbs to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he shall not depart from it” is wisdom, not a promise. Even if it were a promise, let’s be honest, none of us are going to do it right! If we truly believe the gospel, that we are imperfect sinners saved by grace, we will recognize that every aspect of our parenting will be tainted with sin. What good news that God, by his grace, saves our kids despite our imperfect efforts.
We don’t neglect the important responsibility of raising up our kids to follow Christ, but at the same time recognize that it is God who changes hearts and lives and not us. You may be feeling right now that you have “lost control” with your son or daughter at college, but the reality is, God has been directing the steps of everyone in your family since they were conceived. The popular modern hymn, “In Christ Alone” says this well: “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.”
Parent, rest in this truth! Rest knowing that your child is in the hands of the God of the universe. I’m not going to promise you that your child is certainly saved and will eventually get “back on track” with your ideal for him. However, I can promise you that God, who is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love, sees and knows you, and sees and knows your kid, and is “working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Parent, whether you’ve been praying for your child since conception or are just starting this practice, it’s never to late to start praying for your children. When you are fearful: pray. When you feel out of control: pray. When you lack wisdom: pray. Even, and especially, when you feel hopeless when your child walks away from the truth you’ve taught, “rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).
Here are some suggestions of how you can pray for your child. Pray for:
- Your child’s salvation if he or she doesn’t already believe
- Believing friends and a community that will point your student to Christ
- Protection from anything that promises fulfillment that will ultimately not satisfy, and the realization that only Christ gives satisfaction
- A good relationship between you and your child, and opportunities for quality time and deep conversation
- Your own trust in God’s sovereignty
Dear parent, one day I will be the mom saying goodbye to my kid and I’m sure if I could talk to you, you’d tell me it’ll happen faster than I could ever imagine. For now, I’m a campus minister who desperately wants your son or daughter to know Jesus and the gospel that captures hearts and transforms lives. I’ll be praying with you and for you, and who knows? Next time I’m on campus maybe it’ll be your son or daughter the Spirit prompts me to say hello to.
-Written by Katherine Riendeau who is a campus staff in Cru at JMU