Back to college and onward to independence

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

Perhaps they stepped on your last nerve.

Maybe the piles of laundry towered too high. Or the shopping excursions numbered one too many. Or the stacks of supplies spread like kudzu, invading your dining room or breakfast table.

Whatever the trigger, you suddenly realize that back-to-school is everywhere, and you are ready for it to be back in your life.

Yet for some parents, there is no “back” in “back -to-school.” For those brave souls launching college freshmen, there is no comforting return to routine.

There is nothing routine at all about sending a child to college.

The legendary “back-to-school” becomes “onward-to-college,” forcefully ushering in a new phase of life for both parent and child.

Welcome to the land of mixed emotions.

You’re happy they’ve reached this milestone, yet sad to realize home will never be the same.

You’re excited about the new experiences ahead, but worried they may not be prepared.

You’re proud of all they have accomplished, but fear that they may lose their focus.

College life is complex — almost everything about it is new. For the first time in their lives, these kids are totally in charge of their time. How they spend it or waste it is theirs to choose.

And that freedom can be overwhelming.

Many of us “grew up” during our college years. We discovered in a neutral setting who we are, what we liked and what we could do well.

Yet today, the fingers of technology reach from home to college, making separation and self-discovery more complex than ever. The finite apron strings have been replaced by the infinite power of cables, cords and the miracle of wireless.

In his book, “The Naked Roommate,” advice columnist Harlan Cohen describes “The Fifth Wall” of the college dorm room. He calls this thin invisible border the “wall of technology,” where the Internet, text messaging, e-mail, cell phones, video games and other electronics keep kids connected to home.

The Fifth Wall provides a safe haven from all the newness that campus life brings. Phoning home, text messaging a friend or e-mailing long-distant buddies is quick and comforting.

“It’s never been easier to be physically in one place, but mentally somewhere else,” Cohen says. “It’s changing college life.”

Students can get stuck behind this Fifth Wall, Cohen wrote. They risk “missing out on the moment,” those opportunities to plug into college by meeting people face to face, engaging in campus activities, getting to know professors and truly transitioning from home to school.

Ironically, since students talk to their parents more than ever, according to Cohen, this Fifth Wall increases the role of parents in the transitioning process.

Great. Just when you thought you had safely launched that child, you now must measure your interactions to ensure a healthy college transition.

As parents of this generation, remember that we’ve been labeled “the anti-drug” and parented accordingly when they lived with us.

But now they are on their own. We have to let our teachings take root, ever mindful of the Fifth Wall and its consequences.

However, there may still be a time and place to “helicopter parent,” as some label those of us who hover on occasion. We don’t abandon our kids when they go to college. We let them spread their wings. We encourage them, support them, help them make good decisions and then let them live with the consequences of those decisions.

And, yes, we still push them if they need pushing and protect them if they need protecting.

It’s what we do.

Even when they have stepped on our last nerve.