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A Game Plan to Prepare Yourself and Your Child to Head Off to College

Over the next six months, some of your kids will be on a path from childhood to adulthood. They’ll be graduating from high school and entering either college or a career. It is often difficult for both the student and the parent. Here are some “travel metaphors” to guide your conversations and some new helpful habits, in preparation for this big change. I recommend one theme per month through August.

March – Discussion about Hopes and Dreams

The Issue: Sometimes, teens get stuck in the past due to good or bad memories.

The Conversation: Windshields & Rearview Mirrors: When you are on a journey you glance at your rearview mirror, but you gaze ahead through the windshield. So it is with life: Your dreams should be bigger than your memories. We all get our energy from something and someone.

Q: What occupies your mind? Where does your energy come from: past or future?

Exercise: List your fondest memories and greatest hopes. Which list is bigger? Why?

April – Discussion about Accountability

The Issue: College freshmen can get overwhelmed and make poor decisions.

The Conversation: Sturdy Guardrails – they keep you on track. Guardrails are positioned where the road curves, on bridges, on medians (when there’s oncoming traffic) and near cliffs. These are metaphors for year one in college. The path will curve; you’ll cross bridges to new norms; you’ll meet traffic going the opposite direction and there will be cliffs—or places you can fall. You’ll need people to serve as guardrails to keep you on track: friendly accountability partners you TRUST—ones who are: Transparent, Respected, Understanding, Safe and Trustworthy.)

Q: Do you have guardrail people in your life?

Exercise: List people who could be accountability partners you talk with weekly.

May – Discussion about Budget

The Issue: Living on your own can introduce hardship due to poor spending habits.

The Conversation: an Uber Ride. You find out how much the ride costs before you get in the car. Just like any taxi, it’s smart to know what it will cost before starting the journey. Likewise, the college journey will cost: time, energy, money and talent.

Q: How much will it cost?

The Principle to practice: You must calculate before you participate. It’s being proactive.

Exercise: Have them sit down with you to pay the bills and get a feel for this discipline.

Extra Exercise: Have them lay out a budget and then talk it over. Have them justify their costs.

June – Discussion about Values and Ethics

The Issue: Independent first year collegians need a set of values to live by.

The Conversation: A Compass or a GPS: both instruments help us navigate our journeys. The GPS is only helpful if you know the destination address; but what if you’re in new territory? How do you travel well? You need a compass that reveals your true north. In life, these are your personal standards or core values you want to define your lifestyle. Identify those values and discuss how to include them in daily decisions. Talk through ways to implement them in their daily schedule.

Q: What are your core values?

Exercise: Have them list a set of personal core values to live by when away from home.

July – Discussion on Upcoming Challenges

The Issue: College freshmen will face new difficulties they didn’t see coming.

The Conversation: Tollbooths and Roadblocks. In the year ahead, you will encounter difficult times and challenges you did not plan on. They will either be a roadblock, stopping you in your tracks or a tollbooth, where you pause and pay the price to keep moving forward. Difficulties are normal. We choose if they become roadblocks or tollbooths.

Q: Will you make progress? How will you pay the price?

Exercise: Talk about what you predict could be the greatest challenges you’ll face.

August – Discussion on Finding Mentors

The Issue: First year students will need wise people to guide them in their new territory.

The Conversation: Tour Guides & Travel Agents. The difference between them is simple: one goes with you; one tells you where to go from afar. You’ll meet many travel agents, but very few tour guides—those who will serve as a mentor on your journey. You must find them.

Q: Will you make finding a mentor a priority?

Exercise: Find and list mentors—ask how they could offer you emotional fuel such as encouragement and perspective. You must build bridges—not walls—with new mentors.

Bonus Discussion on the Drive to Campus:

As a parent, it might be relevant and helpful to talk about your change of roles:

  • Their role changes from child to adult (as a college student)
  • Your role changes from supervisor to consultant (as a parent)

The family dynamics will obviously change, when your college freshman is gone. You’ll want to work at not obsessing over calling them every day, and let your child have some breathing room; room to grow up. You can fill that time preparing any other children you still have at the house for college, and you can make productive investments, using your gifts. When my wife and I became empty nesters, I saw the potential sadness coming, so we collaborated on setting up her own business. Now she leverages her talent with event planning. Between her new job and mine, we’ve been able to focus on adding value to others and on each other, rather than our children who are no longer living with us.


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A Game Plan to Prepare Yourself and Your Child to Head Off to College