Lately, bookstore shelves seem to be teeming with books of advice for parents and hard-won nuggets of wisdom addressing the anxieties stirred up by the college search, college choice, and adjustment to the empty nest. I've noticed that most of these books end with your child's freshman year. The implication is that once you've gotten through that first year of college, a new normal prevails and the pattern for the remaining college years is set. The advice books then clam up, reserving future prophecies for the parents of impending college graduates—you know, the ones who are entering the worst job market in at least thirty years. Until you're facing that can of worms, do you really need advice?
In a word, yes. In fact, I'm considering writing a manual for parents of college sophomores. One chapter will be called, "What to Expect When You're Neglected."
It's a truth widely acknowledged that sophomore year has its sucky moments. For confirmation, just turn to our current cultural touchstone, the Google search. Enter the terms "freshman year college" and you'll turn up perky results like "What I learned my freshman year in college." Change "freshman" to "sophomore," and Google's "I feel lucky" suggestions include "slump," "boredom," and—sounding a deep basso profundo note—"surviving."
Actually, in many ways our daughter has had as good a sophomore year as we could wish. As the parenting manuals I read when she was a baby and toddler would put it, she's met the expected developmental milestones: declared a major and a concentration, was offered an internship in her field, held a job during the year that will employ her full time this summer, strengthened relationships with several professors and a good group of friends.
But even in the best of cases, sophomore year still offers challenges, for students and parents alike. Colleges know this. When I arrived at Kenyon in the early 90s, administrators and faculty members were debating whether we needed to develop a dedicated sophomore program, something to bridge the excitement and structure of the first-year experience with the advanced coursework and study-abroad opportunities of the junior year. There was a perception that too many students drifted in the second year, becoming disenchanted.
A couple I know who've seen three children through the college experience and out the other side rolled their eyes at the mere mention of sophomore year. "Oh, sophomore year! The phone calls, the tears. 'I hate this place,' 'I'm bored,' 'I want to transfer.'" They tried cajoling, gentle mockery, deal-making, insisting. In the end, there was nothing for it but time. "One day they became juniors and suddenly they loved college again."
Other colleges, too, seem to recognize the dangerous shoals of sophomore year, although they deal with them in different ways. One college addresses sophomores by congratulating them on their "lofty status" (the ancient rhetoricians had a term for this: "the witty mock") and then somberly reminding them that "Sophomore year is a pivotal one in which considerable thought needs to be given to important decisions about your personal and academic direction"—despite the fact that "many find sophomore year to be one marked by considerable and profound questioning of one's personal, academic and career-related goals and aspirations. For example, it is not uncommon for students to wonder if this is the right place for them or even why one is in college at all. 'What does it all mean?' may cross your mind more than once."
Another college addresses the parents of sophomores directly, offering an online guide to the perplexed: the second year of college is a bit like the early teenage years. Your child is independent-minded but not yet confident. They need you still, primarily as a sounding board. Be there, listen, but don't step in to fix problems. Follow their lead. And one more thing: your sophomore probably won't be coming home for breaks so often.
My husband and I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about following and leading. When we attended new parent orientation at our daughter's college last year, the dean of students tipped us off that we might not hear from our children as often as we would expect or like. This was not cause for concern, he advised. "It means they have a life," he said, "and you should get one, too. Get busy. Find a hobby. Take up bocce." (Bocce? All the parents laughed nervously.)
Bocce wasn't up our alley, but we did enroll in dance lessons. Our tango instructor taught us that the best way to learn how to lead is to find out what it's like to follow. Only when you put yourself in your partner's shoes do you understand what she needs from you.
What works for dancing turns out to be not bad advice for parenting our daughter at this point, as she more fully assumes the lead in her own story. For us, that means a certain amount of dancing backwards. Call it "parent disorientation."
If you've seen The Princess Bride, you have a pretty good idea of what it's like to parent a sophomore. There's a scene where the hero of the tale, lost in the Pit of Despair and as good as dead, is brought by his friends to the hovel of an old couple. It's the task of the old folks to work a miracle and bring him back to life. As they send the young protagonists off to fulfill their destiny, they wave: "Bye bye boys, have fun storming the castle!"
They make it sound so easy.