Tell me more: 8 conversations to start (and continue) with your college freshman
Photo by Soroush Karimi
Know someone navigating a new parenting phase this fall? Share this list (consider pairing it with a coffee gift card!) to help family and friends grow together as their kids grow up. And join us again soon for more great conversation starters from our Tell me more blog post series.
That was my answer when someone asked me what I missed most about my daughter moving away to attend her freshman year at college.
It wasn’t because she was a “girl” (boys talk too).
It wasn’t because she hung around the house that much her senior year (she was probably out more than in!).
The significant difference was that our paths crossed more frequently when she lived at home. We both made time to check in every once in a while, but some of our best conversations happened serendipitously.
She’d get home late and want to process her outing.
I’d need a ride to work and we’d catch up in-transit.
We’d go for a run together.
And both of us lingered in the kitchen longer when weekend pancakes were made by a family member.
The beauty of orbiting the same home is that conversations with your kids can naturally happen as schedules—no matter how crazy they get—overlap.
But when she moved away, our orbits changed.
Our everyday lives were cities apart.
Our text messages were conversational snacks—enjoyable, but not sustainable.
Our conversations needed more context as friends, places, and events became a foreign language that needed explanation for my understanding:
Sam—who’s that again? Does she have a last name?
You went to Sunset Cliffs? Where is that in relation to your dorm?
You’re camping WHERE this weekend?
How was your bio lab today? Oh, that’s Tuesday?
You get the picture. Conversations with my daughter shifted from regularly “picking up where we left off” to “keeping up or getting left in the dust of her moving-at-the-speed-of-freshman-life.”
My wife and I have learned with all our daughters that if we wanted to continue to nurture growing relationships with our growing kids, we had to be committed to pursuing good conversations. For those of you who have a kid heading off to college or moving away from home that first year after high school, this is a crucial moment to begin nurturing new conversational patterns.
That first year away from home flies by and so much happens for them! For us parents to keep connected, here are 8 conversation prompts to start and keep using throughout freshman year.
1. Tell me about the friends you are meeting. What do you like about them?
Start with friendships, not to-do lists. In their freshman year, friendships are on their minds more than anything else. They want to make friends and find ways to connect to a group, and they dread feeling completely alone. Give them space to process their friendship experiences.
2. Walk me through one of your days this week.
We’ve found that this is a great conversation starter that invites our kids to share what is important to them and to disclose what is meaningful, hard, fun, or overwhelming on their own terms. At first, don’t expect great detail and resist interpreting their answers. Instead, treat this conversation as them offering you a snapshot into their lives. Pay attention to names, places, and events. When you have more conversations down the road, you will have more context and your kids won’t have to constantly give you the backstory of every detail.
3. What’s giving you energy these days? What’s tiring you out?
Freshmen are learning to find their life-rhythms for studying, eating, exercising, friendships, spirituality, fun, and downtime. Give them room to process their own energy levels. If they reveal to you that they really struggled with an assignment, ask them how they might have planned or prepared differently. Freshman year is the season when they start to realize that they cannot do it all, that they must make choices, and that they need to invest in what’s important to them. This takes time and they need good conversation partners.
4. Tell me about your favorite class. What do you love about it?
The big shift parents must make is talking about the quality of their kids’ learning rather than the quantity. Be interested in what they are discovering over whether or not they got their assignments done (the professor will take care of that). Use this conversation prompt to help them discover what they are interested in and what God might be calling them toward.
5. What has it been like to experience different churches or faith communities?
Freshmen who have grown up in a faith tradition may find their freshman year to be unique in that it is the first time they have had to find a faith community for themselves. Give them time to find that community. Ask them about their experiences, not just if they went to church.
6. Have you or your friends ever found yourself in an awkward or scary situation? How did you or your friends handle it?
This is an important conversation to have with your kids so that they know that it’s okay to share troubling experiences they may have encountered. Recently I asked my daughter if she’s ever been harassed or objectified when she’s been out running. Other experiences might include inappropriate advances from another, drugs at a party, driving a drunk friend home, experiencing racism or sexism, the list goes on. Take a deep breath and “go there.” Don’t create taboo conversation topics by avoiding them.
7. What’s something you believe that you don’t think I believe?
This is a perpetual question I ask my kids to let them know that I’m interested in what they think, and to signal to them that our beliefs may not always be exactly the same. Give them space, when they’re ready, to share something they are rethinking. Often, my kids begin their responses with, “What do you think about [feminism, sexual orientation, war, immigration, politics, privilege, etc.]?” Walk into these conversations with them. The win is that you’re talking about these topics together.
8. How do you want to invest your summer?
This is a great question to start asking after the new year. Their first semester is done, they’re feeling a bit more settled in and they will eventually start thinking about their summer plans. Shift their thinking from unstructured “vacation” or generic “working” and help them start processing how they desire to invest in themselves. Investment in their identity, relationships, and calling is a third decade of life priority. Help them dream and consider how they use these seasons.
Remember that these conversation prompts are not one-time events, but ones to circle back to throughout their first year out of high school. Further, recognize that we are parental conversation partners, not quizzers! This means that there are times when we also need to share our days, our ideas, our faith journeys, and how we are trying to invest in our futures.
As parents, let’s encourage each other to keep good conversations going. As Kara Powell and I emphasize in our book Growing With, it’s never too early and never too late to step into these conversations with your kids. In fact, they’re likely waiting for you to make the first move.
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