(July 22, 2013 / JNS) After endless shopping trips, anxious parents of Jewish college students will soon deliver their children to campus for the first time. Some will be cooped up with their soon-to-be-independent high school graduate for many hours on a road trip. Other families will fly.
While the method of transportation may vary, one constant theme is the apprehension a parent may experience while bringing a college freshman to campus for the first time. It may be the students’ first time away from home, and for parents, the feeling that “my little one is growing up” can be quite disconcerting. For many parents of Jewish college students, this is their first child, and they arrive on campus with open eyes, voraciously absorbing all that the university offers, excited for their child’s new opportunities. For some, this drop-off may have a hint of sadness: they are now empty nesters.
In my role as campus rabbi at Chabad at Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U), I have participated in many move-in days. I have observed numerous tender moments as parents bid farewell to their children after spending most of the day schlepping and unpacking. I have also seen an occasional awkward moment, as parents or students grapple with the realization that they are unready or unwilling to recognize the dynamics of their shifting roles.
Fret not, parents. There is good news.
In their recent book, “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student” (Jossey-Bass, 2012), Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean wrote of college students:
“When asked to name their heroes, [undergraduates] didn’t cite celebrities or corporate, government, or social leaders. Less than 1 percent named people like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Ronald Reagan, Rosa Parks, Al Gore, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, their teachers, or their professors. They dismissed cultural heroes. […]”
“Instead, a majority (54 percent) of undergraduates with heroes named their parents. In total, two-thirds (66 percent) cited a family member.”
The high regard that college students have of you, their parents, has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. When a similar study was administered in 1993, about the same proportion of students admitted to having heroes, yet only 29 percent of them indicated that they saw their parents as their heroes. In their more recent study, the proportion nearly doubles.
There are many reasons for this shift. Simplest is an increase in technologies that allow parents to be a phone call or text message away. Indeed, 41 percent of students admit to communicating with their parents once per day. (There are also deeper sociological shifts occurring, which deserve their own article.)
Through my many interactions with Wash U students, it has become clear to me that many students truly adore, respect and idolize their parents. You have no idea how frequently you turn up in conversations I have with your children, and in conversations that they have with each other. Your values, your experiences, and yes, even your occasional cringe-worthy humor, all provide a safe center around which your young adult orbits. You are their sense of balance and their strength, even if they may seem to chafe at your presence.
College is when your children will attempt to define themselves as emerging adults. Just as your children are maturing, your relationships with your children will inevitably shift as well. The core values and beliefs you instilled in them do not disappear in college. Quite the contrary, we often find students coming to our Chabad house for a Friday night Shabbat dinner or Rosh Hashanah services, as that is what their family did back at home. Many others choose to attend, as well, because they know it will make their parents—their heroes—proud.
As you depart campus on that quieter journey home, having delivered your children to student housing, rest assured that you have left them with more than extra-long twin sheets: You have left your children with core values, for them to appreciate, grow into, and guide them for the rest of their lives.
Rabbi Hershy Novack is beginning his 12th year directing Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life serving Washington University. He may be reached at email@example.com.