Acceptance Letters: Parents, college and letting go

Be Nice and Share

Elizabeth Weinstein
September 1, 2016

“Be nice and share.” This motto belongs to a family friend of ours — a retired ER nurse, a big strong guy with a booming voice and an outsize personality. Political strife? Family problems? Neighborhood disputes? “Just be nice and share” about sums up his solution. Not particularly complex, perhaps, but subtler than it sounds.  

 “Character education” messages like this are emblazoned on the walls of elementary schools and broadcast from PA systems. Anti-bullying themes are worked into curricula starting in kindergarten, and conscientious parents echo these teachings at home. Why, then, are many mothers, fathers and caregivers who are sending their children off to college for the first time experiencing a sliding scale of uneasiness this fall? Don’t our kids know how to behave themselves? Don’t they know when to ask for help? Won’t they be treated well and with respect in their new college home? In short, shouldn’t they be prepared to navigate the waters of college social life?

I’m sure I sound naïve to some readers, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one with these questions. Parents of incoming first-years, especially, have reason to be anxious. We hear the news from colleges around the country: charges of harassment and assault are certainly the most frightening of these stories. Parents of young men and women worry about their judgement and their safety. Official emails from the College contain “Title IX tips” on how to talk to our kids explicitly about situations in which they may find themselves — situations we may not want to picture our kids in, let alone discuss with them. 

While these tips certainly are important for the College to share, I’d like to reassure fellow parents (especially parents of first-years) that they’ve probably done a good job of this already and that they’re not alone in their concern and caution. And for those parents who still have kids in high school, middle school, even elementary school: It’s never too early to begin talking about how to show respect for others and expect it for ourselves.

Our ER nurse-friend with the strong voice and the forthright manner has two daughters, now in their late twenties. Both girls were very social in high school and they were trusted with a lot of freedom by their parents. Our friend used to say, “I just ask ‘em. I don’t care, I harp on it. I say: ‘If you’re having sex, you’d better use protection. Do you have birth control? Are your friends taking drugs? What are they taking? Anything you want to tell me?’” His daughters did not appreciate this interrogation, but they tolerated it. The girls would roll their eyes and protest, but they got used to it, and they knew their dad only wanted them to be safe. He did not want them to feel alone or that they would not have his support if they or their friends got into frightening situations. He wanted his daughters to be treated with respect, and for them to demand that respect as well.

In a “Move-In Day” video on Kenyon’s YouTube channel, fresh-faced kids from everywhere told us what they brought with them this year that they couldn’t do without: their cell phone, their stuffed bison, their harp, their baseball glove. The uplifting video ended with one smiling guy proclaiming, “My positive attitude.” Yes, I thought, that is the most important thing — for academic success and for a satisfying social life as well. After all, if we’re not nice, we can’t share.