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Letter to Your Child Leaving for College: Some Ideas to Get Started

The time is coming soon. Really soon. Your child is off to college in just a few short weeks.

There's probably a lot you want to say before they go, but those conversations can be hard. Also, let's be real: Many teens are pretty great at tuning out so-called parental wisdom. (At least mine are!) 


You may find that writing a letter is a better way to go. Yes, an old-timey letter, written or printed on actual paper. Why? Three reasons:

  1. You can take your time. Writing the letter over a few will allow you to choose your words carefully and think about what topics you'd like to touch on.   

  2. Your child will be able to digest your sentiments without feeling pressured to respond. If you're covering sensitive or even embarrassing topics in a conversation, your child may become fixated on ending the conversation rather than listening what you're saying. Even though a letter is an interaction, it gives the reader privacy to absorb the message in their own way.

  3. Because a letter from you is probably a novelty, your words may have more sticking power than if you'd just had a chat. Your child may even decide to tuck the letter away to read again when they get homesick or put it in a keepsake box to hold onto into adulthood. 

Obviously, it's important that your letter is personal and honors your relationship with your child. But if you're not comfortable writing or aren't sure where to begin, here's a sample letter to help you get started. Feel free to borrow and/or adapt any sections for your own letter. 

Above all, don't stress. Remember that the important thing is to let your child know that you love them. 

Sample letter for daughters, sons, and non-binary children

Dear [NAME],

As each week of summer goes by, I am increasingly aware that your time here is getting shorter and shorter. Soon, we'll pack your things and deliver you to your new school and the next phase of your life. Over the last few months, you've had to deal with so many challenges and disappointments. I couldn't be prouder of how you've handled yourself, and I know you'll bring that same positive attitude with you to college. 

The fall semester is bound to bring more unpredictability. But one thing is certain: You are an adult now. As you begin the next phase of your life, there are a few things I'd like share with you, adult to adult, rather than parent to child. Many of the following things are concepts I wish I'd known when I was your age. I hope that at least some of this is helpful.

1. Discomfort is normal

You're going to be inundated with "new" during your first few weeks of college. Some  of it will be exciting. Some of it may be uncomfortable, but that's OK. In fact, that's great. Learning how to expand your "comfort zones" is a useful skill that will serve you throughout your adult life. 

Here's a secret: Any adult who has ever started a new job will spend the first few days wondering who to eat lunch with. Getting comfortable with discomfort is what will allow you to seek out more-lucrative and interesting jobs, partners who are a better fit with you, and hobbies and pursuits that will enrich your life. 

Discomfort is going to be your companion on this road trip we call life. Make friends with it now. If the first few days on-campus are uncomfortable, remind yourself that in two or three weeks you'll probably feel right at home.

2. Don't assume you have it all figured out

Over the next few years, you're going to find out that you're good at things that might surprise you. You may also find out that you're not kicking butt and taking names in some areas you assumed you'd be great at. Maybe a subject you sailed through in high school is making you sweat at the college level. 

Remember that every experience — good and bad — is data. Sometimes finding out what you don't like is just as important as finding out what you do like. Pay attention to what subjects really engage you, what kind of environments you thrive in, and what type of conditions challenge you in a positive way. Use that information to help you craft a picture of what you want your day-to-day life to look like. 

3. Make friends who are different than you

Dare to get to know people who don't look like you, who didn't grow up like you did, and who have different ideas, opinions, and beliefs than you do. Learn about them. Learn from them.

College can provide one of the best opportunities to expand your worldview. Don't miss out on it.

4. Join stuff just for fun

If you think something looks interesting, that's a strong clue to where you'll find other people you have something in common with.

And you never know: Getting involved with certain activities may open up career paths you weren't aware of. Which brings us to ...

5. For every job you can think of, there are 15 more behind the scenes

Having to pick a major at 18 is hard, and maybe a little unfair. Looking back, most of us parents would probably admit that we had no idea what we really wanted to do with the rest of our lives when we graduated high school. The fact is, there are literally millions of jobs out there and you only know about a small portion of them.

This "15 more jobs" concept is important because it gives you a lot more flexibility if you find that you're not crazy about your major. For example, maybe you thought you wanted to be a research chemist, but you realized you don't want to spend all day in a lab. You could still work in the sciences as a project manager, in sales and marketing, or as a grant writer. Or maybe you could explore a related science concentration that focused on field work instead.

Take every single opportunity to meet with people in your chosen field, visit job locations, and network. Each interaction will provide valuable information about other possibilities that you might not have been aware of.

6. It's OK to reinvent yourself

Darling child, college is a rare opportunity to get a completely fresh start. Go ahead and dump that nickname you've always hated. Try a new hairstyle. Do a 180 on your wardrobe. Ask the kid down the hall to teach you to play guitar. Start writing poetry. Go vegan (but be prepared to cook for yourself when you get home). Pick a cause that it's important you and join or start an activist group. 

It's time to explore. 

7. Remember that classes cost money now

School isn't free anymore. If you have to drop a class, do it before the drop/add deadline so you/we don't get charged for it. Learn how to be responsible about money now.

8. Use protection

Becoming a parent before you're ready is going to limit your life choices. Don't assume the other person has birth control covered. Put yourself in charge of your future when it comes to procreation. 

[For daughters]:The "morning after" pill is available without a prescription at most pharmacies. If you're the slightest bit concerned about a pregnancy risk, don't delay in getting yourself a dose. 

Also, remember that protection isn't just about babies, it's also about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Babies can change the entire trajectory of your life, but so can chlamydia, herpes, or syphilis. Latex Condoms are your best strategy for avoiding STDs. Use them. (And use them correctly. Do quick online search to make sure you know how.)

9. Respect yourself; respect others; pay attention to the company you keep

[For daughters and non-binary children]: As you probably already know, women and non-binary folks move through the world differently than men. There are a few things you need to know to safe:

  • If you're going to drink alcohol, don't leave your cup unattended or let a stranger get you a drink.
  • Always make sure someone knows where you are if you're going out on a date.
  • If you have a gut feeling that a person or a situation is dangerous, trust that instinct.
  • Don't leave your friends behind at a party, and don't be the one who stays behind. Too many of us have firsthand stories of what could happen next. The #metoo movement came about for a reason. 

[For sons]: Respect women. Be clear about consent. Remember that someone who is drunk is not capable of giving consent. Dare to learn how to connect with another person — whether it's a friend or a romantic partner — in an emotional sense, rather than just a physical sense. 

[For everyone]: Call out classmates who are unkind or hateful toward others. Don't stay in a friend group that uses slurs or casually dismisses the rights or safety of women, non-binary folks, black or brown people, or disabled people. Even if you don't participate in those conversations, just being around them may desensitize you to oppression. 

10. Don't worry about me

Yes, precious child, much of my world has revolved around you for the last 18 years. I will miss you like crazy. Just as you're starting a new chapter, it's time for me to start a new phase of life, too.  I'll have to re-acquaint myself with discomfort, too. But I'll be OK,  just like you will.


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