College prep: It's more than grades

College prep: It's more than grades


Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — When my friend took her daughter to her first day of kindergarten, her daughter turned around and waved goodbye. My friend asked, "Don't you want me to go in with you?" Her daughter seemed surprised: "It's not your class. It's mine."

From an early start, we can raise emotionally independent children. Wouldn't this kindergarten scenario be the ideal between a parent and teenager as she sends her off to college on the first day? We want our children to be as confident and self reliant as this 5-year-old girl.

Unfortunately, too many parents enable their children and hope that college will make them grow up. Somehow, they believe going to a university will sprinkle magic maturation pixie dust over their teen. As a result, many teenagers are ill-equipped to handle the rigors of living on their own. The "Freshman 15," excessive drinking and partying, and failing grades are evidence of unprepared young adults.

Leaders at Hyde Schools counseled, "By the time your child is preparing for college, he or she should know the benefits of a nutritious diet and regular exercise; how to make a budget and maintain a checkbook; and basic tools and resources for emotional and spiritual comfort."

As a university professor, I see a spectrum of emotional maturity among my students. Success in college and a high GPA depends not only on intelligence and skill, but also on a young adult's emotional capability.

Emotional independence depends on these factors:

1. Self-reliance

Are you still waking your teenager up in the morning? Do you fix her a school lunch or have to give her directions to the grocery store? How much of what you are doing is hurting your child?

Examine each situation and ask yourself, "In a year or two, my adolescent will be doing this on his own. How can he gain confidence in this area so he doesn't rely on me anymore?"

Unfortunately, too many parents enable their children and hope that college will make them grow up. Somehow, they believe going to a university will sprinkle magic maturation pixie dust over their teen.

One of my daughters had roommates who displayed a lack of self-reliance their freshman year. The one who lived in the same room as my daughter never slept in her bed that first semester. She spent the evenings watching movies with another roommate, eating brownies, painting nails and finally falling asleep on the couch. My daughter came home from her morning classes and had to wake her roommates up to get ready for school. No wonder two of her roommates were put on academic probation after their first semester.

Self-reliance also means young adults have contributed financially to college expenses. Raising a child who knows how to work hard and do hard things without giving up is critical to success in college. Those who have had to work and save, and perhaps even work part time while in college, have a greater investment in doing well.

Relying only on student loans and a parent's financial contribution creates an enabled young adult. This student will likely be emotionally crippled and feel the world owes her. Even if a teenager receives a full-expenses paid scholarship, it is important that she knows how to work hard scholastically to retain that money.

2. Problem solving

A corollary factor to self-reliance is being a problem solver. I once dropped off a nephew for his first day of college. As I was pulling away, he turned around, looking bewildered. There were so many dorm buildings and he didn't have a map. Sensing his helplessness, I parked the car and walked him around until we found the office and the key to his room. All it took was asking people where to go.


In an article on, Dr. Rick Hansen, director of counseling services at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, advised, "Young adults should be comfortable making decisions for themselves and knowing when to ask for assistance."

When your teenager is faced with a problem, teach her how to ask people where to go and what to do. Give her plenty of opportunities to talk to adults, ask questions, listen and follow directions.

Is he struggling in a high school class? Don't email or talk to the teacher yourself; your child should be gaining the skills to do that on his own. If he forgets his lunch, does he text you to come running to the rescue with a PB&J? He will never learn to solve his problems if you are always the overprotective safety net.

I'm not saying that if a child is in a dangerous situation, he shouldn't turn to you for help. I always told my children that if they were compromised in any way — on a date, at a party, or in any social situation — they should call me and I would immediately pick them up. In college, they should have a backup plan in place if they are pressured socially to do something they aren't comfortable with and you aren't available.

3. Emotional health

To be emotionally separated to a healthy degree means having experiences of being physically separated from home and family.

Feeling homesick is a miserable way to spend a first semester at college. Therefore, structure extracurricular activities so your teenager can spend enough time away from home. Usually a summer camp or youth tour group will last several nights, which is necessary to feel comfortable being away from parents.


I have many happy teenage memories of Girls Scouts, 4-H, and church summer camps, as well as other extracurricular recreational programs. I had a few hard times, too, including the time another girl stole my only bath towel and I had to figure out how to get it back.

A more insidious problem than homesickness is mental health issues that may arise in college. An upswing in stress combined with feeling isolated may increase depression, anxiety or other emotional distress.

Dr. Patricia Fabiano, director of Prevention and Wellness Services at Western Washington University in Bellingham, suggests that you talk to your student about the myriad resources found on most university campuses.

"Students should be encouraged to reach out not only to friends, but to professors, resident advisors, and counselors," she told

If your child is already taking medication, be sure he is accountable to someone for maintaining his mental health program.

Overemphasis on a child's grades overlooks key personal traits of self reliance, solving problems, and emotional health that will build a resilient student. As you fill out college applications and apply for scholarships, remember that emotional confidence is vital for scholastic success.

Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker and a professor at Utah Valley University. Her website is where she writes articles on the joys, challenges and power of parenting.

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