7 Things College Students Taught Me About Parenting

I’ve mentored and shepherded college students through local churches for over 20 years. When our oldest was in middle school, he considered Matt and I oppressively involved in his social media life and dating (“dating”, since he wasn’t allowed to date until we felt he had proven he was mature enough to handle his own heart and someone else’s…not that many of us are that mature ever).

We are not helicopter parents, and explained to him that our insistence that we be involved in his 13 year old decisions was a result of an occupational hazard: Both of us spend our professional lives helping college students deal with the baggage they picked up in middle school and high school, particularly from social media and dating.

For our kids, that means:

  • Phones are plugged in at night, in common areas of the house (not bedrooms.)
  • We have access to their texts and all social media accounts, and in middle school and early high school we checked all of this regularly. If you want privacy, then have your conversations face to face or write in a journal. There’s no privacy on the internet.
  • No dating in middle school, and not in high school unless we have seen a proven track record of wise decisions, honesty and openness.

Our oldest is the only one to experience this yet, and he found us pretty annoying. But now that he’s finishing 11th grade, and mentoring 7th graders through the middle school ministry? He says, “Ugh, why do middle schoolers think they need to date, it’s so dumb!”

We get it wrong often enough, it sure feels good to have parented long enough that our kids can see we were right about at least a couple of things.

In addition to making us extra cautious about dating and social media, we’ve also learned some pretty big parenting truths over the years. We get to hear people’s stories – so many stories – from students with present, involved, loving parents, and from those with harder stories.

I’ve learned a lot I want to imitate, and a LOT I want to avoid.

7 Things I’ve learned about parenting from college students:

#1 Actions are louder than words.

The most important way to pass your faith on to your kids is to actually live your faith today.

Haul them to church every time the doors are open, preach a thousand sermons, talk until you are blue in the face: Kids know where your heart is. If Jesus is less important than security, acceptance, comfort, our kids have a front row seat to our priorities. I can not begin to count the number of college students I’ve heard this from, who tell me they were raised in a “Christian” home, but you can hear the quotations when they say Christian. And when I dig deeper, what they mean is that they were raised in church-going families (often Bible-church going families). But Jesus was not a present part of their family life.

I don’t want to pass on religion to my kids, I want to give them a living faith in a real, present God. Which means today and every day, I need to live my life not for God but WITH God.

#2 But words are important.


I don’t know many parents who don’t love their kids, who wouldn’t willingly lay down their lives.

But I know a LOT of kids who question their parents love and commitment. And nearly every college student who crosses my path is beset with questions about their identity and value, whether they are worth being loved, whether they are seen and known and wanted.

I think it is tempting to think our kids (and other loved ones) just know that we love them, so we don’t say it often enough. But in a world that is all out assaulting our value, as parents we MUST be speaking life and value and worth and love over our kids. Words are nothing without loving actions, but those loving actions need words to give them life.

I want my kids to hear how loved they are first thing in the morning, last thing at night and as often as possible throughout the day. I want them to know I’m their biggest fan, that they are my favorite, that they are loved with a BIG love, by me & Matt and by their heavenly Father.

#3 And how I speak to them might be more important than what I say.

We all have an inner critic, and I’ve noticed over the years that students’ inner voice often sounds suspiciously like their parents.

This is 100% true for kids who grew up hearing angry and unkind words like loser, worthless, dumb.

But it’s also true that my college friends have heard “loser, worthless, dumb” in their parents’ angry tones, frustration, impatience.

This is terrifying. If their inner critic is likely to sound like me or Matt, how am I criticizing, correcting, speaking in those times of frustration and impatience? I am working hard on this, but I do get angry, frustrated, impatient, far more often than I wish. I am not sure what to do other than keep working on it, take a deep breath and watch my tone of voice. Make myself apologize every time I speak to them in a way I wouldn’t want them speaking to themselves.

#4 Speak truth and goodness, but let kids figure out who they are rather than labeling.

I want to speak identity and value over my sons. I affirm their characters, and I want to notice and compliment their gifts, the natural bent of their natures. I want them to hear “You are loved. You are wanted. You are kind. You are loving. You are an includer, not an excluder. You are a good friend. You are a hard worker. You have what it takes. You will figure this out.

But I’ve seen the damage that labeling kids does, naming who they are before they’ve had time to figure this out. “You’re an introvert. You are shy. You are noisy. You are pushy.” This can be even more damaging when it is done in comparison with siblings. In my extended family, I always felt like I was “the smart one” and my sister was “the pretty one.” I was the reader, she was the cheerleader. This created a huge well of insecurity for me, and I’ve realized over the years what a disservice it was to both of us. Can’t we both be smart and pretty at the same time? Or valued for things far beyond our looks and hobbies?

It feels like a tremendous balancing act, to know my kids but also let them learn and grow and discover who they are on their own. But I want to make space for that.

#5 Pay attention.

I’ve never met a teenager who acted like they wanted more attention from their parents, but I think they’re all lying.

Over and over as I hear students stories, their description of their home life is “my parents were pretty busy…” Some even describe themselves as feeling invisible, especially those with siblings with special needs or higher parenting needs.

I feel especially tender about this because I have one child who needs more high energy parenting than the other two. And I have one who is 7 and 9 years older than his brothers, so his needs are totally different, and I know he sometimes feels like he is the lowest priority (because the one who is melting down or going nuclear gets the attention, while the high achieving oldest child is just fine, thank you. But maybe he isn’t.)

I am not sure I can totally eradicate the possibility that any one of my kids might feel invisible, like his needs are the lowest priority. But I do try to be aware of it, to spend one on one time with each of them, to ask questions and listen.

#6  Listen more than you talk.

I am not great at this with my teenager, but I am working HARD. I find it difficult to stop myself from jumping in and correcting him, reframing things when he’s complaining, pointing out the other side of the story when he’s griping about conflicts with friends.

Sometimes that is my responsibility, sometimes he needs me to be a voice of wisdom and experience, to lift him out of the selfish, insecure drama pit that is life in high school.

But far more often what he needs is someone to listen.

To say, “Wow, that sucks.” To ask, “What are you going to do?” To say, “Being a teenager is so hard.” To remind him that he’s a kind, bright, good kid, and a great friend and to affirm that he will figure it out.

#7 My kids need a parent more than they need a friend.

I find this especially hard with a teenager, because I do really want my kids to like me. But good parenting involves saying no more often than being liked all the time allows for.

But my goal is to raise grown ups. And grown ups aren’t formed by parents who say yes, who ignore unhealthy or immature behavior, who have no expectations.

With the students I work with it is always obvious who was expected to be responsible, timely, keep commitments, clean up after themselves. I do a fair number of job references (and camp and ministry references), and I’ve heard back from a few managers that irresponsibility is a growing problem. We’re sending kids out into the world who don’t know that you have to show up to your job and do what’s asked of you.

It is in my kids’ best interest to expect things from them, to teach and model community values like cleaning up after themselves, not making work for other people, doing what they’ve said they’d do.

In our family, this means everyone has chores to keep the house running smoothly. And it means curfews are kept, and it means there are consequences for poor choices.

In our family, this also means you don’t quit the team when you’re sitting the bench. You don’t skip practice because something more fun came up. You don’t ask someone else to cover your shift at the last minute because something fun came up.

These decisions are not popular. I tell my kids they don’t like it now, but some day their bosses and families and communities will love them for the habits we’re forming. That goes over super well, you can imagine. But it’s true.

7 Things College Students Taught Me About Parenting

Wow, parenting is so easy, right? What are your best parenting tips?





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  1. esthergwalker

    I LOVED this Renee. Such important things. Although, I am not a parent, I also have a decent amount of experience “parenting” college students and nannying young children that are not my own. One thing I would say that I have seen to be really important over the years kind of adds on to your point about letting your kids know they are loved…but, telling and showing them that their mom & dad love each other. This doesn’t mean that you have to hide when you are working through conflict, by all means be as authentic as is developmentally appropriate for your children. But, also allow them to see the ways that you love, like, and pursue each other. Make intentional time for the two of you. Kiss in the kitchen. Actively support and celebrate each other in a way that your kids can see and even join in. A good marriage is undeniably connected to good parenting. While finding the balance is easier said than done, I think it’s important to guard against investing all your time and energy into parenting at the expense of your marriage.

  2. deetscott

    Thanks for these words! My son and over a dozen teens from our small church are heading off to college while we are also experiencing a baby boom. We all need to hear this advice!

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