An Open Birthday Letter to my Mother

Mom,

Happy Birthday! You’re 49 this year right? How strange it must be to have a son who looks older than you. Well instead of the typical Hallmark card that anyone can buy, I thought I’d write you something that anyone can read.

When I talk to people who grew up in particularly troubled homes, as I seem to do all of the time these days, I am grateful to be able to say otherwise. When people lament their broken or dysfunctional families, I am grateful that mine was otherwise. Although Mark was nearly always sick it seems, I don’t remember our family being in constant crisis about his health. We were so often happy like a family should be. I am thankful for the stability and security you provided for during what could have been traumatic times. Of all the gifts a mother can give her son, the gift of presence is perhaps the most lasting and influential. Thank you for always being there.

I know your own childhood wasn’t easy, and for that matter your adulthood hasn’t always been particularly easy either. But you’ve always believed in me, supported me in what I have done, encouraged me when times were difficult, and believed tirelessly that I could do anything. It’s become almost cliche to say that these are things mom’s should do, but you have done them consistently, and I am grateful.

Only now do I have some idea of how difficult it is to be a parent. From colic, to carpool, to cooking and cleaning, to college costs, to grandchildren, I am learning the challenges of being a parent through the years. So thank you for showing me the way, for your faithfulness to our family, and for your consistent dedication to being a great mom. I love you, and Happy Birthday.

Matt

Family

Visiting Campus: Some Advice for Parents of Freshmen

After move-in day, you head home and hopefully get 2-3 weeks of separation from your student before he or she comes home or you go back to visit. These weeks are crucial for students to make connections and establish habits that will sustain them in the months that follow. A premature visit can disrupt that process, but a well-timed visit to campus a few weeks into the semester can help both parents and students reconnect as a family, catch up on each other’s lives, and evaluate how the college experience is affecting all involved. So if you haven’t seen your student for a few weeks and you’re planning a visit for Parents Weekend, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Talk to your student briefly before the visit to discuss in advance what time you’ll spend together, what functions you’ll attend together or separately, where you’ll sit for the football game, where you might go to church on Sunday, and other such plans. Communication in advance will help you all manage your expectations for the weekend. Except in dire circumstances, never pop in for a visit unannounced.
  2. Don’t expect to spend every waking hour with your student when you visit campus. Your son or daughter now has a life that doesn’t often include you. Friends, studies, rituals, habits, organizations, and responsibilities now occupy his or her time. Those things don’t cease just because you’re visiting. On our first visit to campus to see my son, he dropped by our tailgate for a few minutes, crammed his stomach full of food, and then returned to game-day festivities with his friends after about 30 minutes. We saw him later in the day, and some the next, but he went right on with his life, which showed me that he’d adjusted well to college.
  3. Avoid the temptation to read too much into your student’s response to seeing you. Some students may be tearful and others rather placid. Their emotional reaction to your visit may be more a factor of how much sleep they’ve gotten than their excitement or aversion to seeing you. And here’s a hint: your student is probably ALWAYS sleep deprived, so take their reactions with a grain of salt.
  4. Look around at your student’s life. Take a mental snap-shot of what you see. What are your student’s friends like? Is the car running well and in decent shape? Is his/her room functionally organized? Of course it is reasonable to begin to form some preliminary evaluations, but keep your observations to yourself for now. Parent’s Weekend should probably be a time for celebration more than correction.
  5. Pick your battles. As you see your student’s life on campus, you will inevitably find some things you are pleased with and some things that bother you. Don’t micromanage, but you should express concern where it is warranted. When my wife first visited our son’s dorm room, she was appalled by the smell. I was more concerned with my son’s sleep habits. Although different things felt important to each of us, we had to be careful that we didn’t nit-pick. As you talk with your student about college life, try to focus on the things that really matter.
  6. Ask the right questions. We parents tend to ask our students general questions like, “How’s the semester going?” or “Are you doing well in your math class?” Such questions tend to elicit monosyllabic responses. Instead, ask specific questions that are easier to answer and yield more information, such as “What is your favorite thing about campus?” or “Who is your favorite professor and why?” or “What is the most difficult part of being a college student?” I have a talkative child and two quiet children and these questions have tended to work better for them all at any age.
  7. Relax and have fun. Go into the weekend with a light-hearted attitude expecting to have fun. You may be worried or anxious about how your student is adjusting and that is normal. Express confidence in how they are doing, be encouraging, take them to eat at their favorite restaurant, and maybe give them a little extra spending money. This is a weekend for things that lighten the mood and lift the spirits. A bit of preparation and forethought can help it be so.
Campus Ministry

Things Parents Should Know About College

Note: The following is an abbreviated version of a talk I will give to parents of rising college freshmen at Shades Mountain Baptist on July 31st, 2014. Special thanks to Arliss Dickerson, a long-time campus minister at Arkansas State, who originally blogged on this topic and I got the idea and title from him. I compiled my content from a variety of sources, including campus ministers, student affairs professionals, and academic research, but the opinions expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of my colleagues.

  1. College is worth it. In purely economic terms, college is a good investment. Even with escalating tuition costs, high unemployment among recent college grads, and falling wages, a college degree today is still worth over $1 million in additional earnings through age 65 (an average ROI of 14-15%). In terms of emotional growth, psychologists suggest that the two greatest times of change in a person’s life are (1) birth to age one, and (2) the first year of college. In educational terms, students who want to learn will learn, and most students still want to learn, although not all. (Rebekah Nathan has an interesting book on this subject).
  1. College is difficult. This seems obvious, I know, but somehow many freshmen seem surprised when they take their first tests and get back their first papers and their grades are lower than they expected. Professors assign more work and expect better work. The most successful students attend class almost always, take good notes by hand (not on laptops), ask good questions in class, meet their professors outside of class, and generally take the educational aspect of college life very seriously.
  1. The most common mistake students make … parking tickets! There are many places where students can make mistakes, some serious and some trivial. Never fear the statistically improbable. Chances are, your students aren’t going to make the most serious kinds of mistakes. The most common mistake is parking. Parking is extremely limited on most campuses. Parking tickets are usually really expensive and the folks who give tickets are typically highly skilled, vigilant employees!
  1. Generally speaking, faculty culture is averse to traditional Christian belief. This is increasingly true at state universities, and even true at some private Christian colleges. Students who write papers or give speeches in support of traditional Christian beliefs and values should be prepared for disagreement from classmates and faculty members. This is not to discourage students from addressing such topics with courage and conviction, only to encourage them to do so with great care, intelligence, and humility. Many faculty members have spent years interacting with arrogant students who hold Christian beliefs but have not applied intellectual rigor to those beliefs.
  1. Almost all campuses have spiritual growth opportunities available to students. Students aren’t merely preparing for a career, they are seeking a vocation. This is best done in Christian community. Fortunately, with the exception of a very few colleges, freedom of religion is alive and well on campus. Campus ministries and college friendly churches abound, particularly in the south. Learn about them and communicate your expectation your students find a place to connect spiritually. Students who nurture their spiritual lives while in college tend to be more settled emotionally and less likely to be overwhelmed academically. (See research from HERI on this subject). The sad reality is that nearly 80% of students who grow up regularly attending church, abandon all connection to the church while in college. I can assure you that this drop out rate isn’t for lack of resources.
  1. Alcohol is a serious problem on most college campuses. Alcohol has powerful symbolic meaning for most college students. Students associate alcohol use with freedom, adulthood, community, and belonging. And they make these associations long before they take their first drink. American culture and the billions spent on marketing represent incredibly powerful forces that shape perceptions about the role alcohol plays in the transition from childhood to adulthood. The most serious problems on most college campuses, from academic failure to the growing problem of sexual assault, have strong correlations with alcohol use. You should know that if your children pledge a fraternity or sorority, you may be unwittingly supporting a culture of alcohol abuse. Of all the conversations you should have with your sons and daughters before they start college, the alcohol conversation is a must!
  1. Let your children handle their own business. Have you heard of helicopter parenting? Once upon a time, parents dropped their children off at college and left them alone until Christmas break, sink or swim. College is so expensive now that parents can’t afford for their students to fail, and so parents hover. Resist the temptation! Problems with roommates? Refer them to Residence Life. Struggles in a class? Refer them to the professor, a campus tutoring service (most are free), or the academic success center. Teach them to solve their own problems, manage their own social lives, and take care of their own business. Don’t give them all the answers. Let them make mistakes. Give them space to think and act for themselves. Intervene only after they’ve done everything possible to solve a problem and the issue is still debilitating them or you in some way.
  1. The first three weeks of school can determine a student’s college career. Talk to your students about starting off on the right foot, setting the right priorities, making the right plans, and finding the right connections (a church, a campus ministry, a campus organization). Start off with good habits of sleep, diet, exercise, worship, etc. If your students go away to college, make sure they do NOT come home during the first three weeks of school. Students who get involved in a campus organization do better in school, are happier, less likely to transfer, and more likely to graduate.
  1. Universities are businesses. Learn the business. Schools care about you, but they also care about their own bottom line. Financial aid, course loads, textbook sales, residence life, campus dining, etc. are all complicated, all specific to a particular campus, all streams of revenue for universities, and are all EXPENSIVE. Not every college is worth what it charges. Some degrees are worth more than others. Even though students change majors 3-4 times on average, an extra year of college (“the victory lap”) is usually not worth the money (it decreases ROI). Without intervening in your student’s business, learn to navigate your particular university’s academic culture and business climate. Work the system, avoid debt whenever possible, save money, expect your son/daughter to have a job, and communicate your family’s financial realities with your student.
  1. A good college experience is not terribly complicated or difficult. One study suggests that a good college experience is as simple as finding 2-3 good friends and building 1-2 strong faculty/staff relationships (which includes campus ministers and college pastors). If your students go to class, prioritize academics, work intentionally to connect during the first three weeks, and keep the faith, they are highly likely to do well. I pray they do!

[Special thanks to Lauren Taylor, Janna Pennington, Paige Acker, Kyle Bailey, and Laura Breedlove for their particular contribution to the content of this talk/blog post.]

Campus Ministry