I shall never forget the only time I saw my father cry. It was the first day of orientation at Yale University, and I had just climbed onto a bus loaded with dozens of other soon-to-be freshmen. From a window seat, I was stunned by the sight of him wiping tears with a handkerchief as we drove away. More than any other, that moment marked the end of my childhood.
As another August arrives, thousands of dramas like mine are unfolding once again on the nation's college campuses. According to popular stereotypes, parents dread the day and students can't wait. As a high school counselor, I have found this to be true of my students -- on the outside. Beneath the world-weary blasé that is the high school version of method acting, many are scared stiff.
The process of separation begins months before the first suitcase hits the family van. The initial sign is an exaggeration of normal family dynamics. Where a child has always tested limits, the push and pull escalates into a full-scale tug-of-war. Where conversations have generally been limited to words like "fine" and "nothing" (as in "How are you?" and "What did you do today?"), the student becomes even more tight-lipped.
A little turbulence is par for the course, but some parents react with panic. They see the family disintegrating and work overtime to make it better -- which usually makes it worse. In reality, intense conflict is often a sign of equally intense love. A psychologist friend says that some people actually provoke arguments from a subconscious need to make the impending separation more bearable. The best survival skills are an even temper, extra patience and a sense of humor.