What College Kids Taught Me About Parenting
We’ve all been there: You’re at the grocery store trying to pick out cereal. You have one kid pulling things off the shelf, another is putting every marshmallow-infused cereal in your cart, and the other one…well, you better go find him. It’s about this moment that a well-meaning, childless young adult gives you “that look.” You know the one. It says: “I will NEVER let my children behave that way.” You roll your eyes, find your kid, and think “Yeah, good luck with that.”
Many of us are quick to dismiss people who are younger or less experienced than we are. However, we can’t expect anyone to understand parenthood unless they’ve been there. I sure didn’t.
Just as Paul encouraged young Timothy not to “let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Timothy 4:12), we parents need to keep our heads up. Never should we look down on or turn off our listening ears just because someone’s life stage doesn’t perfectly match our own.
One lesser-known fact about me is that since 2011, I’ve had the privilege of working with college students in some capacity. I ADORE this age group. Some of them are crazy. Several of them are stinky. But most of them are full of life and energy and questions and concerns. From teaching adjunct to living with my family in a res hall full of about 300+ college coeds, I’ve seen and heard it all. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons (both overtly and inadvertently) from them I think other parents need to know.
1. Never be too busy to listen.
I tried to have an open-door office policy when I worked in residence life. This wasn’t always easy because I’d be in the middle of making a budget or planning a program when someone like Jenna would come in, plop down (backpack and all) in one of my chairs, and I knew she’d be there for a while. If I didn’t completely stop what I was doing and engage with Jenna, I knew she wouldn’t be back.
Kids of all ages have a sixth sense when it comes to knowing whether adults are really paying attention. In the age of smartphones and multi-tasking, it’s so easy for us to hear our kids but not really listen to them. Listening involves hearing, paying attention to nonverbals, and seeking to understand. When our attentions are divided, our kids don’t feel heard, and they’re less likely to try again. We need to be willing to S-T-O-P (even if only for ten minutes) so our kids know they’re always heard.
2. Fridays are for dancing.
Almost every Friday afternoon, a group of students would force me out of my office and into the lobby to try out the latest dance craze. I learned to oblige them. I’m sure I looked stupid breaking out the Nae-Nae or letting them “teach me how to Dougie”, but these moments forced me to see the value of just having fun and letting loose—and that Friday afternoons are for dancing (even if I looked like less like Beyoncé and more like this…).
In the same way, we have to remember to play with our kids. Sometimes I get SO involved in my to-do list that I feel like I’m just trying to keep the kids busy and out of my way. But it’s those times when I stop what I’m doing and build LEGOs or play hide-and-seek that we build memories. I’m able to connect with my kids in a different way, and our relationship grows.
3. Look beyond the behavior.
For the last three years, I’ve taught a course on college success to first-semester students. It’s inevitable about a month in to class that I will have a student stop showing up. In these cases, I try to send a quick “we’ve missed you in class” email to check in.
Sometimes, a student is just testing his independence and choosing sleep over class. However, sometimes, I’ve uncovered bigger concerns: the desire to drop out of school or a mother who recently passed away.
These situations taught me not to make assumptions based outward behaviors, and I’m learning to carry that over into my parenting. Often, when my kids act out or get into a cycle of fighting, something is inevitably brewing beneath the surface. Perhaps they’re feeling left out, or they need some one-on-one time with mom or dad. Maybe something happened at school, or they’re getting sick. About 90% of the time, something is happening in their hearts beyond the behavior. As parents, it’s our job to respond to the behaviors at hand AND to peel back the layers to see what might lie beneath.
Youth will never cease to amaze and inspire me. Yes, I often find myself looking at a college student in disbelief, wondering where their common sense went or whether it ever existed. However, the valuable lessons I’ve learned and relationships I’ve built have grown and challenged me. They’ve kept me younger than I feel and more relevant than I should be. Their energy is contagious.
Get yourself a young adult, people. You’ll be glad you did—and your kids will thank you.