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August 2019 View more

Author Robert Craig with daughter Louise during graduation ceremonies at Franciscan University in Ohio. 

By Robert I. Craig

What is that, you say? That thunderous sound? The sound of … buffalo? Buffalo stampeding out your door?

Nah, that ain’t buffalo. That’s your kids. They’re charging back to college after a summer pent-up, restless, bored to tears. And now the herd is on the move. What do you say we get out of their way?

And why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we let them go rambling off, entirely on their own, back to that parallel universe called college? They need room to roam. They need their own space. Just as we, too, could use some space, which now can include even nouveau-hip Sparrow where, with a bit more wiggle room suddenly in our schedule, we can linger on Water Street over a large coffee, buy a biscotti, nibble contemplatively. Admit it: Space like this never tasted so good.

Times like these come rarely for busy parents. The rarity is what makes them valuable, as with any commodity. And so now with no fires that need putting out, we can rest in our knowledge that the kids off at school are all right, that what we can’t see can’t hurt us.

Can’t hurt us?

Are you kidding me?

No. No kidding. Because, if that parallel universe were to crack, or refract some weird energy that reaches our antennae, we would arrive in time to intervene. Until then, we look back on this past summer: on how we did as our kids’ friend (on good days), on how we did as our kids’ warden (on bad days), on how we did as a bug under a microscope through which they watch us and learn how to live. They do need us, whether they admit it or not. And we do love them, perhaps now more than ever. 

What follows is a list of suggestions for parents of a unique niche of kids—those on the threshold of independence, but who still live under our roofs (occasionally).

Maggie Craig (left) celebrates graduation with her big sis Louise. Both siblings graduated from Franciscan University.

Waiting for the Lobe 

When our kids act strangely, let’s remember who raised them. They’ll grow up. We did (eventually). They just need a little more time to develop a frontal lobe, the part of their brain where they make wise decisions. Until then, let’s be patient. Let’s see the humor in their best efforts. Or just see them as chips off the old block.

Learn This

They may not be able to read our minds, but our kids can read our faces. They know when we’re worried. We tend to get quiet. We stare out into the distance. 

Please stop. We can’t assume that, overnight, our kids will forget everything we ever taught them. They have not taken leave of their senses. They have not dropped out and married someone they barely knew. They have, however, given us the opportunity to prove our faithfulness in a power greater than us. And in them. College is a time when students aren’t the only ones who end up learning something. 

Quiet, Please  

Middle of the night and we’re deep in REM sleep. Our phone goes off. We enter cardiac arrest. Moments later, hand to heart, we’re asking ourselves: Has hell just frozen over? The kid’s not calling for money? The kid just wants to say … “Hi”?

No kid does this unless he or she feels safe—safe to speak freely, safe to let it all out, without fearing interruption—from us.

Nothing throws a wet blanket on conversation faster than a parent who’s always butting in. True, our kids might give us a call, but that’s only because they’ve had a bad day. We can have a bad day. They can have a bad day. But they do sound overwhelmed. And our hearts do want to break. Next day we call back, having spent a sleepless night, and they ask us cheerfully, What are you talking about? Oh, that? That was nothing. This, while we drop to our knees and thank God for a positive answer to frantic prayers. One of the hardest things for parents to grasp is that kids don’t want our dissertation on the claim that the moon landing was faked. They just want us to listen.

Grow No Forbidden Fruit  

Friends are as much a part of our kids as their gastrointestinal tracts. Which means that if we criticize their friends, then we criticize our kids. So if a friend shows up wearing a bolt through the nose, relax—our kids will catch on in time. Before then, however, we do not make this friend a forbidden fruit. And whatever we do, we don’t criticize any of our kids’ sibs. Somebody’s bound to blab. So speak kindly to each other and your Christmas break might become a magical month the whole family recalls fondly. 

Adios, Margaritaville

We might come off as perfect parents to casual observers over the years—then get remembered for what we do on one night. I’m talking parents’ weekend—that one weekend on college campuses when we get to see our kids for the first time since they left that fall.  

I recommend we take a little time to prepare ourselves for this reunion. It can come with a lot of emotion. It can come with lot of expectation. It will come with a lot of booze. The activities go all day, and—as if that’s not enough—the parties go all night. Certainly past our bedtime. It’s enough to make us think that we’re the ones in college.   

Most people do develop a frontal lobe (see left), and all of us reading this have grown our lobes already. So, moms: Don’t lead cheers at the football game. Dads: Step away from the mystery punch. And put down that ridiculous red plastic cup. All of us need to remember who we are, that our kids still need a mom and a dad, not a cheerleader, not a frat boy. 

Why? Because when summer rolls around and our kids are back at home, we will of course try to enforce some rules. But who’s going to take that seriously? Our kids? The ones who saw us at parents’ weekend singing “Margaritaville”?  

Yes, parenting’s a lot like the Peace Corps. Toughest job we’ll ever love. But better for our kids to remember us as boring. Not as an embarrassment. Ever see Rodney Dangerfield in the movie Back to School? Yes? Before kids? Time for another viewing.

Problem Solved  

If they’re in imminent danger, then we of course go rescue them. But, short of that, they need to come up with their own solutions to their own problems. How else are they going to learn?   

Kids routinely see our example but forget all about it when we don’t let them act—on their own. They must feel vested, personally, in what they do. Otherwise, if they do succeed, they’ll do so not because of us, but in spite of us.

Dad Kissed Mom (Eww)

A unified home front will motivate any kid to take a worthwhile risk. That kid knows he or she is covered. That kid knows strength in numbers. All the more when Mom and Dad show affection to each other. In the eyes of an attentive child, even a quick kiss can make a lasting impression. 

That goes double for the love of a father who puts the needs of his wife first. Double also for the respect of a mother toward the man who’s loyal to her and her children. In other words, when we give our spouse our love and respect, our kids see that marriage is a worthwhile risk—not that happiness in marriage is guaranteed, but that it does exist. Our kids will then look for a spouse who wants the kind of love and respect they witness at home.

You Flatter Me (Too Much)  

We all want what’s best for them. But they can’t be the best—not in everything. So let’s be honest. Let’s not say that they’re the best student, best athlete, and the wittiest person you ever met. Sing those praises to your spouse. Lies and half-truths set up kids for disappointment. The message they end up hearing is that we prefer somebody better.

Love Means Letting Go—Really  

What a concept: this letting our kids leave the moment summer’s over. We love them more than we love ourselves, and here we are encouraging their independence. 

From us. 

The ones who bathed them, cried over them, bled for them. Just thinking about it is more than we can bear sometimes. Maybe that’s why we count the days (the hours, the minutes!) until we again wrap our arms around them again.

My daughter once suffered a broken heart over the loss of a friendship. At a break in the action I mentioned a lesson that involved a bar of soap in the shower. To help keep the bar from squirting loose, we hold it loosely in our palm. If we squeeze, we lose what’s important. I thought this lesson was for her.  

It was all for me!

Robert I. Craig was a stay-at-home dad of two daughters, two years apart, for two decades. In his previous life he was a public relations writer living and working in Chicago. He and his wife, Ellen, have been married for 35 years.