As tears welled in my eyes, his were bright with anticipation. The rearview mirror proved what I had dreaded, I was leaving him at college. He was waving with exaggerated gestures and I was giving way to a full out cry. After eighteen years of nurturing and caring for his every moment, how would I survive all the moments between our connections? The good news is...I did. The better news...he thrived. The best news....we are still connected.
Staying connected is key to growing your relationship beyond the nest. Every relationship must have connection points to grow. Building an adult relationship with children takes time and initiative. Fortunately today, there are more ways than ever to stay connected. Jim Burns, Ph.D., writes, "A recent study from the Barna Group indicated that today, parents are just as dependent upon technology as their children. Parents spend almost as much time as their kids using technology devices. More importantly, most parents believe that technology has been a positive influence on their families. And so, most parents should find it easy to utilize today's technologies as helpful tools in staying connected with their kids who are away at college."
Key to connecting is figuring out which way your child likes to communicate: weekly calls, more frequent calls, text or email. Over time, a pattern will be established, but starting with a plan, discussed by all parties, is a great beginning. Imperative; be flexible. College students often have meetings that are not scheduled as class time and your student's availability is not always immediate. Figuring out "how" to communicate is most important, the "when" will be worked out. Important to note; different types of communication should be used for different messages.
Phones. There is nothing quite like hearing someone's voice when physical proximity is impossible. The tenor carries a host of memories, feelings and connections. A parent's voice sends love, security, value and stability from a distance. Phones are great tools, yet their overuse can cause concern. Students do not have unlimited time to sit and chat or receive calls for every whim of the parent. Calls should be limited to a convenient time and limited to the students schedule. If calls go unanswered, don't take it personal, they will get back to you. Provide them the opportunity to be independent and learn to delineate their priorities. Texting ahead of time to set up a phone call is a great way to ensure it is well received.
Texting. Texting is not for long drawn out conversations. It is for short "I love you," "Thinking about you," or "Go Slaughter that Exam." Use it for quick questions that can't wait until phone time. Try your best not to text every time thoughts of your child surface. They have work to do, people to see and places to go. They are learning to order their world. Constant contact will sincerely stifle their independence. Some sensitive children will be unable to tell you so and others will hurt your feelings by not responding. Yet, don't take silence as a shunning. In the modern texting world, it is proper etiquette to respond to a text at your convenience, not as soon as it is received. The younger generation is not offended nor does it mean to offend with lagging responses.
Email. Email is for longer discussions, updating on life "back at the ranch" and for information that does not need immediate response. The younger set at college will have lots of email to wade through because colleges communicate online. Your student will have email from professors, student housing, student life and others every day. Your email will be one among many which he will have to read, synthesize and give response. Don't expect or demand immediate answers.
Facebook. If you have an account and your child is willing to "friend" you, Facebook can be a public way of connection. Remember, Facebook is never a place to write personal messages or air new information. It is a public place seen by all of your child's friends and associates. But, the jewel of this tool is by far the photos! Posting photos (or sending via phone) gives your child an eye into the latest happenings. The same holds true for the photos on her page. Warning: Don't ever assume you know the whole story by reading Facebook posts or seeing pictures. Facebook is an incomplete view of their world; just snippets without context. Yet, it provides connection points.
Online video chats (Skpye, phone videochats). What fantastic technology. Being able to see your student and talk "face to face" is a privilege once dreamed of. Most host sites are free and cameras for the computer are cheap. Watching children act and react while conversing brings comfort and reassurance as to their well being and vice versa. Plus, it can be used for fun connections; getting their approval on a dress, viewing their latest project (especially if you have an art major), seeing their beloved pets left at home or viewing their decorated dorm room. Again, set up a Skype time. Don't assume it is always an option.
Handwritten Notes. There is nothing more invigorating than a letter in the mailbox at college. Most days, students only find college communications in that box. But, finding a card or letter from home is the best. It can be read, reread and kept for times when reassurance and support are needed most. Remember, it is always nice when the card includes a five dollar bill, Starbucks card, or and off-campus food gift card.
Care Packages. This is possibly the most thrilling. A few treats from home arriving at school is a very tangible way to "reach out and touch someone!" It really doesn't matter what is inside, getting a package is a gift unto itself. Memories of care packages surpass time. After you have long forgotten, they will remember. Consider including something for your child's roommate, as well. It cannot hurt the roommate relations.
Visits. There is no means of communication that surpasses time spent together. Shared experiences are the strongest of all connections. Make a time to visit your student during the semester. Once or twice is all that time will probably allow, but making the effort to be part of their world is priceless. Yes, they can possibly come home for a weekend, but taking the time to travel to them signals their importance and your commitment to the relationship. They are bound to get weary of studies and a visit from home may be just the boost they need to thrive till the end of the semester.
Resolve to stay connected and commit to finding the best ways and means, which will probably be a powerful combination of all of the above. They may be beyond the nest, but they are not out of reach.
Elaine Stone, mother of three, lives in Spotsylvania.