July 2012 Print

Parenting Your College- Age Child

Michael J. Rayes

Difficult Transitions

When children become 18-year-olds, they experience a whopper of a transition. “Yesterday I was a child; today I am an adult.” Or so they say. While a legal age of adulthood is useful as a defining point for legislated activities such as service in the military or signing a contract, it hardly conveys a psychological truth about human development. It may be seen as a culturally imposed rite of passage, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the transition is not immediate.

Your 18-year-old may play with a radio-controlled airplane in the morning, drive a car to practice in the afternoon, pick up dinner for the family, and later argue with his little brother about a comic book. If his back-and-forth child/adult behavior confuses you, imagine how he feels. That’s why we call them “young adults.” They aren’t exactly ready to lead a Fortune 500 corporation, but they don’t need a babysitter either. This raises a question for you as the parent: How do you give your “adult” child the proper balance of space and support?

Consider your child’s temperament. Many 18-year-olds with a busy, outgoing, task-oriented personality may not need a lot of support from you. They may view it as restrictive and instead look forward to the day when they move out. However, the more contemplative, brooding, detail-oriented temperament style may need more emotional support from parents. It’s really no different now than when she was little: Today she may know how to do her college homework or fill out a scholarship form, but she may need you by her side when beginning these tasks until her confidence catches up to her abilities.

Let’s look at a few aspects of a young adult’s life. We’ll consider how to give them the space they want, the progression of responsibilities they need, and the support they crave.

Driving and Running Errands

Consider letting your young-adult offspring drive his younger siblings around. Have him pick up some groceries. This does two things: One, it teaches him how to shop, so he can do it on his own when he moves out. Two, it teaches him that he is needed as a member of the family.

You may wish to let your child own a car, especially if you can figure out a way to buy an older, reliable one for cash. Your child now has to deal with oil changes, washing, maintenance, gas, and so on, which he can learn from you.

Money and Work

Should young adults pay room and board? If they earn money, the answer could be yes. Regardless of your 18-year-old’s financial situation, you may want to consider helping him or her open a checking account. You’ll have to explain the wiles of modern banking, or the child will have a negative balance in a hurry.

Some college-age children do not attend college but rather go straight into the work-force. Others work while they are in school. Whatever their situation, they most likely will have questions for you or may just need space to “vent.” They now work with a lot of different personalities, and they might not know what to do in certain situations. St. John Vianney’s admonition about having “universal charity” for everyone is not always easy to practice.

Domestic Duties

Your grown child should be able to do his or her laundry. He will probably see the sense of combining his load of laundry with someone else’s. However, he will keenly feel the injustice of having to do his siblings’ or parents’ laundry separate from his own. This may embitter him.

The young adult will probably be viewed by you as the perfect babysitter for the younger siblings, and for good reason. This works well most of the time and helps all the children learn to work out problems.

By the time a child turns 18, he or she should basically be able to run a household. This includes dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, operating the heating/cooling, mowing, and so on. Once a child turns 18, you’ll want to determine how many chores he or she should perform. What’s fair? You may also wish to consider paying your child for certain chores, but others may simply be expected.

At some point, you’ll notice that your 18- or 19-year-old simply does not have time to do these domestic chores and keep grades up at the same time. In my household, we gradually released our son from all his chores by the time he turned 19. He worked 20 hours a week, attended college full-time, kept up very high grades, volunteered, helped his parents with web site development, and paid money into the house from his own paycheck. When we learned he was paying his younger siblings to do all his chores, it was obvious that we needed to adjust.

Catholic Action

Is your 18-year-old ready to go head-to-head with a university professor? Probably not. If he hears something against Church teaching, his best approach probably will be to cast doubt in the minds of other students, discreetly, one-on-one, which will be more fruitful than challenging the teacher in class.

Instead of the “A” grades you expected, your daughter may end up earning “B” and “C” grades in her courses because she spent extra time volunteering with pro-life work or a rosary crusade. This is Catholic Action and adds balance to her otherwise heavy academic life.

Fathers may wish to encourage their college-age children to do something which expresses their Faith in a visible way. It could be pro-life work, helping with processions at their chapel, or if they attend a public college, always remembering to make the sign of the cross and praying in the cafeteria before taking a meal. Archbishop Lefebvre said in his jubilee sermon on Sept. 23, 1979, that the responsibility to organize for Christ the King and train children in Catholic Action falls to the heads of families.

Parental Support

Support does not automatically mean money. You have an established home to which your son or daughter can come. This is a huge support for him. Another great support is having a parent who can help him pick out a car and then find a trustworthy mechanic’s shop. He will need help filling out his college forms, of which there are many. Let your child deal with the stress of life, but you may wish to sometimes intervene when you sense your child becoming overwhelmed with responsibilities.

Probably the best support you can provide is a stable framework of prayer. Your son or daughter knows that at this certain hour, it’s time for the rosary. He knows that before the little kids go to bed, the family prays evening prayers together. This provides stability in his changing life.

Your college-age child still needs parental discipline, but it will probably be a quick admonition (“Stop fighting with your brother, now!”). At this age, discipline is no longer physical. Serious infractions will most likely call for a loss of privileges and a serious conversation. Remind the child that he or she is older now.

Expression of Ideas

Your collegiate child will come home and verbalize some “nutty” ideas. How you react to them will make a big difference. He needs to explore ideas and learn about the world. Your reflective “tell me more” instead of jumping in and contradicting him will help him sort things out. He needs space to think, and if he chooses his parents to discuss things with, you can be proud of that!

You may reach an uncomfortable point with “lack of respect.” When your child was 7 years old, we called it “talking back” and stopped it; at age 19 you may not wish to force an end to the argument. Your young-adult child will disagree with you on something. At times, the child may choose a battle with you simply to flex his own ideological muscle, which is new to him. You may wish to strongly consider letting him argue his point, but stop him when he crosses the line and makes a disrespectful remark. Generally, you could disregard your own need for affirmation and respect from your children, and decide that your 18-year-old’s disagreement with you is a way for him to grow. My son and I had a 20-minute animated discussion over whether some publicly funded twisted metal was “art.” It wasn’t, of course, since it didn’t elevate the mind to specific virtue. He said it was. But the discussion helped hone his reasoning skills and made him clarify his position. Even though he was not correct, he chose that particular topic and that particular time to “do battle” with his father. I had to be there for him.

College-age children can make the transition into full adulthood when given the space and support they need. This transition period gives parents an opportunity for another joyful expression of sacramental marriage, because with proper parenting, your grown children will be a consolation instead of a burden.

Michael J. Rayes is a lifelong Catholic, a husband, and father of seven. He has been published by Rafka Press, Latin Mass Magazine, and others.