June 7, 2012

The last summer before college can be meaningful for the entire family

Before her daughter left for college, Margo E. Bane Woodacre invited her daughter’s five best friends and their mothers to lunch.

Before her daughter left for college, Margo E. Bane Woodacre invited her daughter’s five best friends and their mothers to lunch.

She got out the good china, requested that the moms wear hats, and put together a compilation video of the girls hamming it up during high school sleepovers.

“It kind of sounds like something you can see in a big mansion in Georgia. No, it was in my house!” says Woodacre, co-author of “I’ll Miss You Too: An Off-to-College Guide for Parents and Students” (Sourcebooks). “I had to really fit everyone in at the table, but we had a ball. We moms, we all knew each other well — our girls had all hung out together — and we all presented little stories and fun things around the table.”

Society offers few formal rites of passage to mark a child’s last summer before college, but parents and experts say there are plenty of meaningful options, from formal gatherings to sentimental journeys to important conversations about a son or daughter’s looming independence.

Among the options often cited: a family vacation arranged with the notion, implicit or explicit, that this will be the last time everyone will be together for a while.

“That’s very, very powerful,” says psychologist Carl Pickhardt, author of “Boomerang Kids: A Revealing Look at Why So Many of our Children are Failing on Their Own, and How Parents can Help” (Sourcebooks).

“When you create that kind of getaway, other kinds of connections are set aside and you can focus on the family.”

The family vacation helps telegraph the message that while a lot is changing in your child’s life, family is permanent and he or she will always be a member of the family, Pickhardt says.

Woodacre’s variation on the family vacation was a weekend with her daughter, Steffany Bane Carey, at a spa, where they hiked and ate organic food. They talked about how much Steffany would miss her friends and boyfriend, as well as lighter topics such as fashion and Steffany’s impending move.

“I have a picture of us standing on the steps of this place with our arms around each other, feeling healthy, looking great, and just having that time together,” says Woodacre, 62, of Landenberg, Pa. “We roomed together, we talked — it was special.”

On a more practical level, Patti Lux-Weber, the Parent Program coordinator at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says that there are some basic topics that parents may want to cover before sending their offspring into an environment where they’ll have significantly more freedom than they had at home.

Kids, she says, can benefit from even the most basic discussion of finances: Will the student have a credit card? Who’s going to pay for what? Are the parents paying for entertainment or just food? Does a 2 a.m. pizza count as food or entertainment?

Parents may want to encourage a conversation about alcohol, Lux-Weber says — and communication is a key topic as well: How often do parents and students plan to communicate? By what means?

Covering such topics and organizing major activities can be important, experts say, but meaningful last-summer experiences need not be elaborate or carefully choreographed.

Try to avoid getting bogged down in the logistical details of packing and purchasing, says Lux-Weber. Get onto your child’s social schedule — yes, that may involve some planning — and be intentional about the time you spend together, paying attention to what you’re doing and how it feels.

There’s a natural tendency to be in denial about how much your relationship with your child is changing, but Woodacre says that facing the situation head-on can make the last summer particularly meaningful.

“I think parents and students should enjoy the last (time they do) everything: The last lacrosse game, hockey game, basketball game, the last prom. The last time they’re all sitting in the gym for graduation,” says Woodacre.

“I think that’s an important message: It’s the last time. Even if (parents) have three younger kids, it’s the last time for this particular student.”

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