Most students hope that when they look back on their time at the university they will be able to say, “Those were the best days of my life.”  Their hope is that they will reflect on their university experience as four years of productive academic work, boisterous times with good friends, exciting discoveries about their future, and a sense that their life path has moved progressively forward and upward.  However, college is rarely like that.

I can honestly say that my four years of college were among the best, but not because they were easy or fun or without major setbacks.  In fact, they were the best years precisely because they were such a mixed bag.  Along with some of the best times with people who have since become life-long friends, I also remember lonely days and nights when I felt utterly alone.  I was often intellectually challenged, but I was also frequently bored to sleep.  I look back on those college years as a time of incredible personal growth and discovery.  But in the midst of it, I frequently felt lost, confused, lonely, and deeply discouraged.

As parents, what we learn (hopefully) is that important lessons are not usually learned from experiences that are fun and easy.  Some of the more important lessons in life are learned only from experiences that push us or hold us back, that stretch us, challenge us, even scare us.  Your daughter or son will inevitably encounter significant disappointments, confusion, loneliness, boredom, disillusionment, heartbreak, and a host of other experiences that seem undesirable at the time.  It will be a real stretch for them to believe that such experiences can make up “the best years of their life.”  However, one sign of maturity is when a person can stand in the midst of such experiences and not bail out, knowing (or at least hoping) that the lessons learned will be worth the pain.

Perhaps that’s where your role as a parent is still important.  You can still be in a position to remind them that patience and persistence often pay off in much bigger dividends than instant success, that meaningful relationship are built on working through difficulties as well as having fun together, and that the path into the future is usually taken one dimly-lit, tentative step at a time.

I like the line in the song by Green Day, “I hope you had the time of your life.”  I hope that for your student, not because it was all fun and easy, but because it was also tough and important.

Printed in the University of Illinois Mom’s and Dad’s Association Newsletter

November, 2004