Parent Blog

Parenting a college student is a different stage and requires different parenting skills and perspectives. Sarah Butler and occasional guest bloggers will share some insights to help you on the journey. You're not alone!

by Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council

We’ve upset the apple cart again. More change is coming for my family and it will mean we are rethinking the holidays—again. 

When my kiddos first arrived on the scene, change—and survival instincts—drove our holiday decisions. We had to ask, “Is it our job to meet the needs of our extended family at the expense of our own?” For a good long stretch, the answer was “Yes.” With in-laws living four miles apart, it felt easier to figure out naps on the run than risk disappointing the grandmas. Too often, achieving balance looked more like deciding who got the grandchildren for Christmas Eve versus Christmas morning rather than considering what would help the adult children maintain sanity.
With college-aged children who begin to have relationships that compete for their time, it’s easy for parents to ramp up the holiday festivities to keep their attention, and their loyalty, at our own tables. Experiencing this with our first college freshman can be tough. Just the awareness that our newly independent college student might want to do something besides help us pull out the Christmas decorations can be one of those “letting go of” moments that catch you emotionally unprepared.

Nevertheless, change keeps coming. Our latest family transition is a happy one. My daughter is newly engaged to a wonderful man and they are both deeply committed to navigating family well. This is the first holiday season that they feel it is important to be together for everything. In this scenario, however, families are 2 ½ hours and a state apart. I reminded my daughter that she and her betrothed need to discuss what is best for them as they anticipate being a family of two. What do they want from the holiday? That will likely lead to setting some traditions of their own and facing decisions about sharing their time. Asking them what they will do to achieve balance may mean asking myself how I will navigate in new territory, too. 

I spent so many years making sacrifices in the name of family that I missed some of the joy. As much as we want our children with us on the holiday, I recognize they are more likely to want to be together when I avoid guilting them into it. Adulting includes making decisions about moving forward. I do not want to be the one holding my daughter’s holiday decisions hostage in the name of “we’ve always done it that way.” As it turns out, the two of them enjoyed a meal together with us on Thanksgiving Eve and then drove to be with his family for a meal on Saturday. Neither nuclear family had them on the holiday, but we each had a precious window of attention and practiced our attitude of gratitude for the time we had together. 

I recognize that sometimes family change brings a lot of chaos without as much reward. Some of us have experienced a first Christmas as a single parent, or a first holiday after losing a parent of our own. Christmas comes despite cancer, deployments, or natural disasters. It’s not a lot better for families torn by conflicts or personality clashes. Stress can be inevitable. Honestly, for your student, just the transition from college life back to full-time family can be enough to upset the family balance. Holidays, as much as we look forward to them, also escalate tension.

My heart’s desire is for my adult children to enjoy being with me as much as I enjoy being with them. That means recognizing that change is inevitable and making my share of allowances to keep holiday stress at bay. I would rather be known as the great compromiser than the great complainer as we navigate to the new normal. I am choosing to be satisfied. This year Christmas with my family will be on Saturday the 23rd instead of Monday the 25th, but we will have it nonetheless, and I’ll get to attend Christmas Eve worship service without having to come home to lay the table for the next day. It is going to be great. 

by Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council

I love a good underdog story. When it’s time to choose a movie to watch, I’m the one voting for inspirational tales like Hidden Figures and Lion, or suggesting a return performance for enduring films like Hoosiers and Apollo 13. I might even be brave enough to view grave hardship when it underscores a triumph of character like those in Hacksaw Ridge or Schindler’s List.

Maybe I like those stories so much because as a student services professional, I am privileged to witness real life overcomer stories. By this point in the semester, it’s pretty clear who is sailing ahead of the academic pack and who will struggle to hold on to their grade point average. It is both a fact and a fallacy that the transcript is essential. I know that that magic number is critical to achieve a degree, but in the grand scope of things, it is not the only outcome of value from a collegiate experience. When a student learns a hard lesson well through tough circumstances, has to retake a course to prove that they can do it, or balances more responsibility at the cost of top scores—they are still truly winners.

As a former administrator of a Christian school, I had the opportunity to see teachers in action during routine classroom observations. It was inevitable that my own academic successes and failures would influence my view of a well-run classroom. I was an “A” student in most things but I was not—I repeat NOT--a natural athlete. It always felt unfair that my physical ability was the sum total of my grade in required PE classes. Perhaps that is why my best-of–the-best observations included our physical education instructors. Their grading rubric was designed to assess attitude, effort, and sportsmanship right alongside accomplishment of physical skills. Winning the game indicated less about performance than the impact on the team. Even the least gifted athlete had a chance at a top score when their ability to encourage others, their determined attitude, and their consistent hard work paid off. In fact, with those factors ranked high, some of the natural athletes got lower scores than their less gifted peers!

Isn’t that true of work, too? As an employer, I would rather hire someone with great character and a demonstrated work ethic with a less-than-stellar GPA over a candidate with a 4.0 that never had to study hard to get A’s. I rarely look at a transcript as a judge of employability. Instead, I am listening for the overcomer stories, the hard fought lessons learned, and the comments on character from former employers and instructors. God promises rewards to everyday people based on their attitude and conduct. Period. Ephesians 6:8 says, “Because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Whether in school, work, or relationships, what our students demonstrate about who they are is ultimately more important than a score on an exam.

By this point in the semester, it is likely that your student has hit a few challenges, regardless of their grades. As parents, we can be mindful of our opportunity to affirm their transformation and not just their transcript. When disappointment comes, we can gently ask, “What do you think the Lord wants you to do with that?” When challenges stand in the way of achievement, we can reflect on the changes we see in their maturity and convictions. Parents have the unique ability to affirm that the rubric of life is based first on the honorable traits that they are building as they work toward the goal of a degree. We are, in many ways, the registrar for the record of renovation in their hearts.

I’m reminded of the film Seabiscuit, the true story of a down-and-out trainer transforming a temperamental and undersized horse into one of the most successful thoroughbreds in history. It is rewarding to see the underdog cross the finish line first. It’s also important to remember that for our students facing hurdles, crossing with character may be the greater victory.

by Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council

Family recipes are like heirlooms…precious, time-tested, and woven deep into the fabric of our families. I know my two kids’ favorites. It’s “Mom’s lasagna” for the birthday celebrations or pot roast for a Sunday dinner. I know to bake poppy seed cake for a special dessert for one and pumpkin pie (even in July) for the other. The recipe for successful parenting is not quite so evident. It is not possible to combine an established set of ingredients in known quantities, bake them at a standard temperature for a predictable amount of time, and guarantee the results.
I enjoy watching cooking shows that throw aspiring chefs into competition for taste, presentation, and ingenuity. Contestants get a limited number of fresh ingredients, a few surprise elements, and a limited time to create a masterpiece. The clock starts ticking as they scramble to make the right decisions and combinations. Their goal is to beat the buzzer to the taste test, knowing that their efforts will be scrutinized and deemed a success—or a failure. 

I see an uncanny resemblance to my experience parenting college students. At this point in the race, I am sensing that the timer is almost ready to go off and I have to make the most of the opportunities I have before my kids are “fully cooked.” I know that there is still time to adjust the recipe, garnish the masterpiece, and influence the presentation, but it is too late to start over with fresh ingredients. There is, undeniably, a bit of sweat on my brow. It feels like my kiddos are on the “cooling rack” and the judging begins.

It is far too easy for us to focus on the results, rather than the recipe. Like Top Chef, anticipating the “Quick-fire” parenting challenges heightens anxiety. Like Cutthroat Kitchen, we get distracted by comparison to others. Like Hell’s Kitchen, we have to stay on our toes, knowing that surprises are lurking around the corner that could lead to humiliation. Like Cake Wars, even the dessert round can be the end of us. We aspire to be Chopped Champion but are aware that we may be rushing the process instead of putting the pot on simmer.

If parenting were a recipe, what would the list of ingredients look like? Instead of racing the clock, can we slow down long enough to assess our parenting plan? We are past the point in the parenting recipe where food, clothing, and transportation are the staples. The basics are in place. What are we still purposefully adding to the lives of our sons and daughters? Intentional parenting requires a plan, combining the best of what you have to contribute into something better than the raw ingredients. 

What we do at this point in the cook-off can still enhance the recipe. When I stop to think about my parenting goals in this season (no pun intended), I recognize that I am still working on enhancing the flavors. I know I want some of my key ingredients to be:

Affirmation – Calling out my son and daughter’s God-given gifts and talents, lets them know I believe in them. I add yeast to independence when I reflect that they are capable.

Accountability – By carefully mixing in the hard questions about decisions in relationships, choices with finances, and applying themselves to their goals, I can encourage them to take responsibility for their future.

Availability – Offering attention and assistance in generous proportions when my son and daughter ask for help--being ready to make listening a priority--reinforces that learning how to ask for help is a critical ingredient in adulting.
Advice – Providing instructions in diminishing measures and guidance in increasing increments helps me serve as an advisor instead of an instructor. I can open opportunities for influence through deep conversations, rather than maintaining my position as the authority on their lives. 

Amen – Committing to garnishing them daily with prayer, I can offer my blessing when I am able.  

Of course, this is my ideal. Honestly, at this point in the race, I sometimes feel more like a deconstruction cook. I am competing with already-cooked elements and need to recreate them into something new. It is as if I have a Twinkie, a stick of beef jerky, a jar of pickles, leftover fried chicken, and a limited selection of spices in my hands. They challenge is to reshape those into a prize-winning entrée.  

Even if we have the same recipe and pure ingredients, there is no guarantee our creations would look or taste the same, so we are NOT in competition with other parents. Parents are actually stewards of whatever God has placed in our hands. Every step in the process is important in the finished product. Let us remember that even if our pot roast or poppy seed cake is already out of the oven, there is still a need for making gravy or applying the icing. We have to gather our support team like we gather ingredients, fold in prayer, layer in our best instincts, bake with love, finish with faithfulness, and trust God for the outcome. Parenting our college students with purpose and intentionality is what makes us winners! 



by Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council Member

I had the opportunity to make a break from my established routines this summer. An invitation to a wedding in Colorado inspired a few extra days far from home base at a cabin in the Rocky Mountains. That rental became my new home for a short time but surprisingly, I was almost never there. Too many things kept beckoning me away. When I arrived at the cabin, I said I was going to enjoy sitting on the porch in the morning with coffee, make popcorn over the fire pit, and take advantage of the gas grill in the backyard. Adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park, shopping in Estes Park, and attending the wedding all drew me away. When the last evening arrived, those “nesting” activities had not happened. Coffee traveled with me in an insulated mug on the way to somewhere else. Dinner was more out than in. The fire pit went unused. While the cabin had the potential to be a home away from home, the influences beyond those walls put limits on my sense of belonging.

Whether our students are making campus their home for the day (commuters), or also each night (residential), we parents can unintentionally influence our students to leave the porch and fire pit behind. If the draw from home base is greater than that of campus, they may choose not to participate in intramural sports, try out for a play, or pursue their heart for missions on a Spring Break service trip.
We establish a sense of belonging to a new community when we make a break from our routines in order to invest ourselves in new ones. We feel at home when we choose to—or are encouraged to—put down roots, even if it’s for a week, a month, or a school year. We may not be keeping our students from “nesting” intentionally, but when the familiar nest is too comfortable, our students have less motivation to invest elsewhere. If we subtly (or not so subtly) lure our students back to home base, exploring their new world on campus may put their loyalties to the test. I know that time with our kids is precious. However, when we invite open access to our pantries, provide laundry service, and wait on them when they come home, we may be unwittingly encouraging them to remain kids.  

It is true that despite good instincts to launch out on their own, our students need our encouragement. I read that eagles separated from their parents at birth will never learn to fly. Imagine an eagle groveling around in the dirt like a chicken—what a sad picture of lost potential! As parents, we naturally encourage our babies to walk. We motivate them to reach their potential with our outstretched arms. I recognize that encouraging them to “fly” can feel more like pushing them out of our nest--like training them to leave our embrace-- but if eagles built for soaring need encouragement to take flight, maybe we can take a lesson from their moms and dads!

It isn’t just about helping our students enjoy campus activities and make friends. The opportunity cost is not just missing the Saturday night Movie on the Green or the chance to serve with Youth Crew. It is so easy to forget that students who are rooted and grounded in their new culture also increase their potential for academic success. Studies by educational researchers Astin, Osterman, and Goodenow consistently reveal that the feeling of belonging has a powerful impact on students’ academic motivation, engagement, and performance. Furthermore, perceived support and a sense of connectedness increases students’ belief in their own ability. Students who feel a part of their educational community report more enjoyment, enthusiasm, happiness, interest, and academic confidence in comparison to students who are more isolated. 

Encouraging your student to settle into campus life does not mean you are inviting them to check out from family life. The advantages to investing in their new world pay off for you, too. Our UNW parents in Spain and Hawaii have to be especially brave on the front end to allow their students to come this far, but they get it that distance really does make their students’ hearts grow fonder. In my family, we say that when we miss each other, our “stock goes up.” Our appreciation grows when we are apart. After all, family is forever and there’s no place like home!

If you are longing for time with your student, a healthy balance might lead YOU to be the ones who leave the familiar and comfortable behind in order to connect with their new territory. If you are local, joining your student on campus for an occasional meal out gives you a chance to see their new digs and meet their new friends. For those at a distance, Homecoming is a great time to arrange a visit to experience campus in full swing. Planning a trip to attend UNW’s outstanding theater arts or music events together invites shared memories. It could even build new family traditions.

During their season of study, encourage your student to invest time at the “UNW cabin” to enjoy the backyard and all Northwestern has to offer. Your influence is essential in helping them make this their home away from home. The payoff in their independence, academic success, and sense of belonging in their new home away from home will be worth it!




by Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council Member

As a kid, I always thought it was an advantage to have a summer birthday. I was never expected to go to school on my special day but I still had the privilege of bringing treats to school on my half-birthday. So, as a parent, I thought I hit the birthday jackpot when my two were born in June and July. Planning backyard parties was a kick. My kids chose predictable favorites for their birthday meal and I invited them to help me plan activities, knowing the mess would stay outdoors. That made it easy for my kiddos to anticipate the fun and hard for them to be disappointed.
My strategy was born out of seeing anticipation outpace reality. I remember my sister often being disappointed on her birthday. When I was growing up, planning didn’t often involve kids, so it was easy for my sister to imagine something much grander than reality. When it was my turn, I had high hopes that I could avoid disappointment by engaging my kids in more discussion.
We are often victims of our own “hoped-fors” instead of masters of our “planned-fors” and birthdays are not the only time we are vulnerable. Fall Semester starts in short order. With our students in college countdown mode, it is easy for hopes to get ahead of plans. While we are busy packing in the last family picnic of the summer, getting the commuter car in shape, or shopping for the dorm room supplies, it is easy to be wrapped up in getting the semester started and forget to discuss what will happen next. How will we (or how often will we) communicate? Do we expect them to share their grades? When do we expect them to be home (or when do we expect them to stay on campus)? Who is footing the bill? In the business of the wrap-up and jump-off, have we forgotten the what-then?
I recently heard expectation defined as predictive disappointment. That certainly applies to my sister's experiences with birthdays. In order to avoid dashed hopes, we could try to eliminate expectations all together. Stephen Hawking once said, “When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have.” Perhaps a birthday bash always exceeds your expectations if you didn’t recall it was your birthday. Then again, it is also true that raising expectations can help us achieve excellence—if goals are clear—and shared. Earning an A on an Organic Chemistry exam is unlikely if we thought we should study our Medieval History notes instead. When it comes to our college-bound kids, what are the hopes we didn’t plan for that could result in disappointment? How do we manage our expectations as we transition to a new chapter in our relationship so that we are helping them reach their potential? Acknowledge your "hoped fors” and let them steer you to planned conversations. Pick a topic or two. Ask for a discussion where parents and students can both share their expectations. For example:
COMMUNICATION: This is your first year with a college student. Your habit has been to text with your student throughout the day and you are looking forward to hearing the "blow-by-blow." Your student may need a longer tether and appreciate the discussion about how often you each hope to be in touch. It’s easier to reach a compromise if you understand each other's expectations.

GRADES: You might hope your son will readily share his grades. You know college requires a much greater level of self-discipline and are not certain he’s prepared. You expect he’ll need an accountability system to make sure solid habits are established from the start. Since the federal privacy act (FERPA), means parents do not receive a copy of student grades, you are pretty sure he won’t offer to share unless you have agreed on a system in advance and reasonable consequences if a course correction is needed.
TIME AT HOME: You might hope that your commuter student would have some meals with the family during the week but return to campus for weekend social opportunities. You might hope that your residential student is making campus their home and building meaningful relationships without coming home on the weekend. Commuter or resident--you may hope that they will do their own laundry! A discussion with your commuter establishes how their schedule fits in with family plans. Your resident student likely needs your affirmation that you know that there are activities EVERY weekend for them at UNW and you are not expecting them home until Thanksgiving. You may actually need to speak the words, "Laundry lives where you do and adults do their own.” 

FINANCES: You may want your daughter to have a job to pay for books and expenses or you may want her to prioritize for getting academics underway before she attempts balancing work and school. Your son might be expecting you to pay for gas money and take out loans without his help. This is a better now-than-later discussion!

I love how Proverbs 24:14 tells us, “Wisdom is sweet to your soul. If you find it, you will have a bright future, and your hopes will not be cut short” (ESV). Could it be that if we know and understand each other’s expectations our hopes might also be realized? Is it possible that talking about mutual expectations with our college students brings a greater likelihood of peace in our relationship? We aren’t talking about birthday parties, but being a college student is worth celebrating so it also deserves planful discussions to avoid disappointment and achieve satisfying results.



by Sarah Arthur Butler, Parent Council Member

Two hundred and forty one years after Independence Day, we still celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, when our 13 colonies declared themselves a new nation, separate and distinct from the British Empire. Festivals, family gatherings, political speeches, and parades all mark the occasion, with many including fireworks finales.
This massive celebration of our historic emancipation from our motherland is well earned. The coming of age for us as a nation came only through deep struggle and suffering in a bloody war for our independence. The great minds that birthed our Declaration of Independence and Constitution gained a sober understanding that it would likely take more sacrifice and loss of life to preserve our ideals. Those profound lessons served as the foundation for our nation. The remembrance of the milestones are intended to help preserve our national values.

It strikes me that our transition from colonies to country is a nation-sized example of a rite of passage, marking the cultural transformation from struggling youth to growing maturity. Milestones that mark the coming of age for boys and girls becoming young men and women reinforce the views and values embedded in their cultural context. Across the world, some rites of passage also include great lessons through suffering. For example, young boys belonging to the indigenous Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Amazon mark the introduction to manhood at 13 in a jungle initiation that includes the toxic and excruciating stings of dozens of angry bullet ants. The boys accept the pain--and the temporary paralysis--without crying out, demonstrating their cultural value for men who are tough and resilient.

Historical practices in marking maturity may also look more civilized. For centuries, 13 has also represented the entry into adulthood in the Jewish culture. Many scholars attribute this milestone for young men to Abraham’s celebration of Isaac’s coming of age. Now, Jewish boys and girls around the world celebrate their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in order to demonstrate their command of scripture, commitment to Jewish law, and readiness to participate in religious ceremonies reserved for adults. The preparation is a head and heart discipline, rather than a physical test of maturity, signifying an intentional training for a responsible life of faith. The name bar/bat mitzvah literally means son or daughter of the law, emphasizing mental and emotional growth as well as increasing responsibility and culpability. Ceremonies generally include both a reading from the Torah by the young adult and a reception as grand as a wedding to celebrate this milestone.
In our Christian communities, strong, brave, and resilient might look more like readiness to do battle with our culture. In Raising a Modern-Day Knight, Robert Lewis outlines an approach that equips boys to be men by teaching three essential elements that include a vision, a code of conduct, and a transcendent cause (Christianity) in which to invest his life. Similarly, Raising a Modern-Day Princess, by Pam Farrel and Doreen Hanna, emphasizes training and discipline that allows girls to model the attributes of a daughter of the King. Ultimately, both culminate in a celebration of Christian character and growth in independence with support from family and community. 

Our lesson learned might be that young men and women will not learn all they need to know for a smooth transition to adulthood without opportunities to exercise their maturity muscles. While we may not need a war for our territory, a contracted "declaration of independence," or a book of adult "laws," how are we schooling our sons and daughters in the skills they need for life? What battles are we allowing them to fight to secure their independence? When are we allowing their will and endurance to be tested? What are the marks of adulthood we are looking for in their lives--spiritually, emotionally, socially, and financially? How are we encouraging them to reach these milestones and how are we celebrating their accomplishments? 

I do believe that our job as parents centers on the tough goal of gaining grown-ups. It is likely that we have not reached all the milestones with our young adults by age 13, but we are still our children’s primary influencers and we can approach parenting with purpose and intentionality. We can still set goals for emancipation, identify milestones worth marking, and look forward to celebrating our children’s hard won independence. When we get there, I am thinking that it might just deserve fireworks!