How to empty the nest, avoid drama and ease the pain

Kids grow up and they leave. We hope. If you've done your parenting job right and prepared for this day, it might be sad, even a little traumatic, but nothing you can't fix with a nice chianti and Netflix.

The journey from 7 lbs 8 oz to 215 is quick. Are your strong enough to let them go?

WASHINGTON, August 24, 2017 — You change their diapers, buy them braces, bandage their knees, comfort them through their first breakup. You put up with acne, teen hormones, teen hostility, and teen neuroses.

You used to be an interesting person who took weekend jaunts to Nantucket, dropped everything to go see an eclipse, and made a mean tikka masala. You gave it all up to change those diapers and save for those braces. You went from vivacious and charming life of the party to purse-lipped, disapproving sanctimommy.

There’s a payoff, right?

Well, eventually they go. You realize that raising kids is like hitting yourself over the head with a board because it feels so good when you stop.

But we still get attached to them. Cutting the cord and shoving them out of the nest is traumatic. Yes, of course it’s traumatic for them. They had a sweet deal going—free maid service, free rent, unlimited hair product—and suddenly they have to figure out how to call for a hair appointment and check their own tire pressure. But oddly enough, it’s traumatic for us, too. It takes some getting used to. We’ve grown accustomed to the trace of something in the air, accustomed to their face.

So let me offer some suggestions to sooth the transition and ease your pain.

1. Prepare early. If you’re getting rid of your child in the next month or so, this suggestion comes too late for you, but if you have a year or two to go, start the process now. To be honest, if you didn’t start when your child first started to walk, you’ve blown it.

Kids need to learn some life skills. From the time they were old enough to reach the detergent, we had our kids wash their own clothes. We gave them instructions and supervision, but when our son washed his whites with a red and got pink, he got only sympathy, not a new shirt, and he didn’t even get much sympathy.

I’ve always made my kids’ haircutting appointments. Two months ago when my son, Harlan, told me he needed a haircut, I realized that he’d be moving out in two months and should learn to do that on his own.

“Go ahead and make an appointment.”


“Yes, you.”

“Why don’t you do it for me?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“How do I do it? What do I say?”

“Give her your name and say that you need an appointment to get your hair cut.”

“That’s it? That’s all I have to say?”

“No. Of course not. You have to give her the secret code word: Imadoofus.”

A friend who works in the counseling office at a major university tells me that she has to deal with students who don’t know how to make a haircutting appointment, find an auto repair shop, or decide between aspirin and acetaminophen. They don’t know how to do laundry, pay a bill, or balance a bank statement. They can’t follow a recipe.

Mom, dad, you blew it. So fix it, and hurry.

Or have fun with it (and teach a lesson in independent thoought):

2. Decide what goes and what stays. When we started planning Harlan’s move into the dorm, we heard from other parents who wanted to coordinate their kids’ bed linens and wall decor. “Is a 42-inch TV too big for the dorm room?” asked one worried mom. A dad wondered how large a refrigerator would be allowed.

Does your child need an iron, a microwave or a spare computer (one parent actually suggested that)? No, no and no.

I told our son that he could take as much as he could fit in the trunk and back seat of my Volvo sedan. He was shocked. “How am I supposed to fit my desk chair in your car,” he wailed.

“You aren’t,” I said. “Your dorm room comes with a chair.” I cut him off when he started to whine. “I came to the U.S. with two suitcases to start college. It was enough.”

Be minimalist when you prepare the move. Make a list and stick to it. Your child won’t iron a single item of clothing, a hotplate will violate university fire codes, and there’s a TV in the dormitory lounge. I reminded Harlan that we’re sending him to a dormitory to be a student, not setting him up in a bachelor pad.

Courtesy University of Memphis Dorm Survivial Kit –

3. Teach your kids about finances. In response to student demand, I used to teach a short course on personal finance that has been transformed into a series of guest-lectures in a senior course dealing with life after college. I’m still amazed at how many students are amazed by basic principles of budgeting, saving and credit. Students wail, “why didn’t they teach us this in high school?”

Many teens don’t draw the connection between a plastic card and actual money. They know that credit card bills have to be paid, but that knowledge hasn’t been internalized as a cold reality. It would be nice if high schools did a better job of teaching personal finance, but mom, dad, if your child is one of those claiming ignorance on the topic, you blew it again.

If your child has no experience with debit and credit cards, it’s time for a crash course. If your child has never created and followed a budget, you’d better get to work. You don’t want junior to be one of those idiots on HGTV’s House Hunters: “Our budget is $450,000, but I think we should buy the $600,000 move-in-ready dream home.” The spouse nods in doe-eyed agreement. It makes you want to throw your dictionary at the TV and shout, “look up the word ‘budget’!”

More students today use debit cards than credit cards, but the average credit-card debt of a student with one credit card at graduation is still over $4,000. This is one area in which you don’t want your child to be above average.

4. Deal preemptively with medical issues. Your child may come home for routine physical exams, and the campus may have an infirmary. But if college is a long way from home, and if your child has any special medical needs, it is comforting to have a family-practice doctor lined up, as well as a dentist.

Life happens unexpectedly, and medical and dental needs don’t always wait until Christmas and summer vacations.

Image by Daniel Frank for CCO images –

5. Teach your child about alcohol. And sex. The two go hand-in-hand on campus. If your daughter is sexually assaulted or gets pregnant, or if your son is accused of sexual assault, alcohol will almost always be a factor.

You have your values, and you hope your children, having seen your example, will follow in your footsteps. They probably will, eventually. But they’re likely to stumble at the beginning. It helps them a lot if you explain some of the pitfalls they’ll face, then remind them that you’ll love them no matter what.

You should remember that some of their classmates are idiots, and idiocy on campus is highly contagious. You can partially inoculate your kids against it with openness and honesty.

Don’t get overly stressed about this. If you’ve done a good job with them, your children will almost certainly be just fine. If they do run into trouble, remember, there’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse with guilt.

6. Don’t cry when you drop your child off; it makes you look weak.

Okay, cry if you want to. But also understand that it’s time for the kids to grow up, so don’t hover in the wings, and don’t be too disappointed if the phone calls taper off after a couple of weeks. They’ll be home soon enough, with a load of laundry and a long shopping list.

Our son, Harlan, has been gone now for almost two weeks. It’s just now sinking in how much money we’re going to save on food and hot water.

The day we moved him to the dorm, my wife made his bed while his sister poked around and annoyed him by gawking admiringly at the other boys moving in. I wanted to meet his roommate. He desperately hoped I wouldn’t.

Harlan has the smallest refrigerator in the dorm, and probably the oldest. I dug it out of a corner of the garage. His roommate’s refrigerator is nicer than the one in our kitchen. I saw cars with U-Haul trailers pull into the parking lot. Refrigerators. Desk chairs. Beds. Furniture! Some kids take furniture to school!

When we walked past other students, Harlan had an expression somewhere between standoffish and grim. I told him to work on being friendly. “I *am* friendly,” he snapped. “I know you are,” I snapped back, “but you’ve got to work on looking like it. Smile. Like this.” I turned my warmest expression on one of the kids in the lobby. “Good one, father,” said Harlan when the kid recoiled and fell back against the wall. “Work on it,” I said.

Harlan is an introvert. I know as a fellow introvert that introverts often come across as arrogant and unfriendly. Unfortunately, Harlan’s got my acerbic personality and arrogance with none of my considerable warmth. We’ll need to work on that.

He walked us to the front door of the dorm and let me give him a hug. He even hugged me back. “Bye.” “Bye.” No tears, no fuss. I saw a woman crying in her car as I walked to mine and my lips curled in contempt. I didn’t realize that my eyes were watering until we hit the freeway. A moment of weakness. I punished myself before bed.

7. Rent out your child’s bedroom or turn it into a photo studio. It will discourage him from coming back.

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