As I followed the violence in Charlottesville this weekend, I kept thinking about the parents who are sending their kids to University of Virginia in a few short days—orientation for new students is Aug. 19 and classes start three days later.
What must they be thinking? I considered their fear again this morning as I made coffee and woke my own soon-to-be freshman, who leaves next week for Temple University.
Leeannah began her college search two years ago and just a few months after Freddie Gray’s death. At Franklin & Marshall, a mother and son recoiled from us when we said we were from Baltimore. I think that was the moment that Leeannah chose not to apply there.
When she told friends and family that she wanted to attend Temple University, we heard a lot of comments about safety and the neighborhood around the school. Each visit, I looked for things I should worry about—continual police surveillance of certain blocks, the portable spotlights used to illuminate areas of drug activity and other signs of crime.
Instead I saw people waiting for the bus, and on Sundays, African American families dressed up for church.
I am still worried about Leeannah thinking that she is invincible and walking alone at night. I am also worried about car accidents, stupid behavior while drinking, campus assaults and pretty much everything a mother can worry about.
I didn’t worry about Nazis, because they are the people my grandfather fought in World War II. I didn’t worry about white supremacists because I had hoped they would go away by now, and because I didn’t think and still wonder if they are going to show up on a campus as diverse as Temple.
But the fact that Leannah will be on a campus is a comfort worth holding onto. After all, as Cynthia Terry, chaplain at Goucher College, points out, your college students are “not in your household, but they’re not on [their] own,” either.
As campuses across the country prepare for new and returning students, they are preparing to help students navigate the new and uncertain.
With any child, the first step is to listen. Terry spent Monday with a group of students training to be peer listeners and they did not bring up the weekend violence in Charlottesville; they were more concerned with the task at hand.
Adolescents are “such a lovely mix of caring about themselves entirely and caring about the whole world and thinking they can save it themselves,” she says. Listen to learn what your teenager is concerned about. Acknowledge that the world is scary, and that at times, we all feel helpless.
For children younger than middle school, reassure them they are safe. “They don’t have to hold the anxiety that the world is unsafe. That is our job,” says Terry, who is a mother herself.
For middle schoolers and teens, determine if they can handle their anxiety and screen them from it if they can’t, she recommends. For example, if continual Charlottesville coverage alarms them, limit their time on social media or their exposure to news coverage. “Maturity is that balance in our anxiety in what could happen and what most of the time doesn’t,” she says.
For children who want to respond to a crisis, parents can help them figure out how. Terry and her family attended a vigil for Charlottesville last night, which was a good experience because one of the speakers reminded attendees how Baltimore was inaccurately portrayed in the media after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, she says.
That reminded her how parents need to “manage the feelings’’ that social media and traditional media can elicit in their children. After all, “Charlottesville is a place full of many good people,” she says. “It’s more than the experience of this weekend.”
Terry tells me it’s important for parents not to transfer their own worries and anxieties about their child’s departure onto the child. Then with a laugh, she asks me to send her a link for this blog post for next year, when her oldest will be off to college himself.
Parents can never know everything the world will hold. Accepting that is part of maturity, too.