Student gone solo

When my son went off to university in January of this year, I thought things would continue much as they had while he’d been at school. Sure, I wouldn’t be supervising his homework. Or driving him to and from extramurals. Or going to parent-teacher meetings and AGMs.

But those were all good things – great things, in fact. The only not-so-good thing was that he would no longer be living at home (and I missed the hell out of him).

University is, however – as many of you, I’m sure, will be quick to tell me – an entirely different kettle of fish from school.

Shock 1 was how astonishingly he mismanaged his finances. His father decided that, rather than allow me to manage a weekly account for my son for at least the first few months, he’d immediately begin paying a certain sum monthly for living expenses directly into my son’s bank account (although – and I freely admit this is an opportunity for me to say ‘I told you so’ – I told him not to).

By the end of February my son had run through his living expenses and all his savings and had racked up a few additional debts besides. I bailed him out (everyone’s allowed to make One Big Mistake) and sat him down for yet another talk about budgeting – a very stern one, this time.

Shock 2 was discovering that he wasn’t, despite my frequent phoned exhortations to do so, eating properly. I’d furnished his flat with the basic necessities of toaster, kettle and the like, and given him a running start with a fully stocked grocery cupboard (coffee, tea, Cremora, 2-minute noodles, ProVitas, a variety of canned foods, that sort of thing).

When I went through in July to help him clean up because he was coming home for the 6-week vac, I was distressed to find the groceries untouched – but even more so to find the kettle and toaster still in their packaging. Probing questioning revealed that he was surviving on toasted sarmies and cheap coffee available at the student union (and he wondered why his skin had regressed to its 16-year-old state).

Shock 3 was his midyear results. My son is very bright but not madly ambitious, and the only way I got him through school exams was to employ a combination of bribes and threats – a system that worked insofar as he managed reasonably good results at the end of each school grade. In the absence of either in the run-up to his university midyears, however, he clearly didn’t do nearly enough studying, and failed two of his three exam subjects.

There are lessons in these experiences for both him and me. He’s had to learn how to handle money sensibly, deal with an acne break-out from hell, and realise that unless he really gets his arse into gear for his finals, his university career is going to come to a screeching halt.

I’ve had to accept that my son is growing up and fast becoming an independent adult: while I can still advise and help (when I’m asked to), his financial affairs, his day-to-day life, and his academic triumphs and failures are no longer in my hands.

How involved should parents be in students’ lives?

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