Dear Dr. Wes & Ben: I’m going to college this fall, and I’m just now realizing I don’t know if I can live on my own. My mom or dad have done everything for me all my life, and while I liked it at the time, now I’m kind of mad at them. I’m afraid I’m helpless, and school is like two months away.
Ben: The good news is that you’re far from alone. A lot of us don’t quite realize all the things our parents do for us until we have to buy our own groceries, pay our own bills, sign ourselves up for things and do all the tedious things we figured were always taken care of.
There’s more good news: You don’t have to live completely on your own. There will be plenty of life-experienced people at college, and you’ll want to find a few who can really help you through your first few months of feeling things out. Also, it never hurts to give your parents a call when you come up against something you know nothing about.
Living on your own doesn’t mean knowing exactly what to do in every situation, but it does mean knowing what you are capable of doing and when you need help. It means using your friends and family as counselors and not crutches. It means owning your decisions and not letting someone else make up your mind. This part of your life is scary, but it’s exciting, too. Embrace it!
Wes: I can’t improve on Ben’s advice, so I’ll just add a larger context for parents whose kids have a few years left before they face the dilemma you’ve shared. At the risk of sounding like that old guy who walked uphill both ways to school in 6 feet of snow, I have observed a growing trend among parents to overfunction on behalf of their children. Teenagers need a bunch of things in life, and near the top of the list is natural consequence. Too often parents try to make their children’s lives perfectly bearable by providing excesses in everything from possessions to freedom. Teens will say they want that freedom, but they are far less inclined to accept or be ready to handle the independence that comes with it. So parents are better off tempering kids for life rather than helping them avoid it.
Freedom seems so fun at 17, offering the promise of living without someone standing over your shoulder, questioning your next move and then acting to set limits on it. But in your letter you’ve shown considerable maturity in realizing something your peers may not see until they’re really out on their own — independence is the opposite of freedom. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself on a daily basis and accepting the consequences for your actions, large and small.
Because you see this, you’re actually in a better spot to handle adult life than you imagine. I’m not saying it will be comfortable, particularly if your parents did overfunction as you grew up. Just don’t give up and run home. Expect your first year of college to be a mixed-up jumble that combines the glory of freedom and the agony of independence. I’m sure your parents will be there to back you up, but I’d challenge you to do your best to use their support less and less as you find your own two legs to stand on. You’ll get there.