Last Thursday we dropped our daughter off for her first year of college.

College was a pivotal time in my life. It afforded me opportunities for growth and change (and yes, education) and helped me to literally become a better person than the one I was in high school. While I — like everyone — am still very much a work in progress, I had made more of that progress during my four years of college than I had before or even in the 20+ years since.

Contrast this to my wife, who also attended college but who lived at home. She also got an education, but she missed out on the experience of being young and more or less on one’s own. When the subject arises, she’s always quick to mention that she sorely regrets not having gone away to college.

This is why I was excited to deliver my daughter to her new school, a good three hours from home, last week. I knew from first-hand experience, and my wife through her unfortunate regret, that this was something that our daughter needed. We were given the well-meaning but overstepping “advice” that we should maybe look into a local community college for the first two years before diving into a larger college or university, and for some people that is a viable route, but in my mind, a college education is certainly helpful, but a college experience can be life-changing. Delaying it might make financial or practical sense, but our daughter has always been practical and is more or less financially sound; what she lacked was the opportunity to “be an adult” in a protected environment, where people expect students to be both responsible and also to hold on to some level of irresponsibility. There is no safety net in the real world, and kids simply cannot live under their parent’s umbrella forever. The experience of going away to college — for those fortunate enough to have that opportunity — is, to me, worth as much if not more than the education itself.

Now I’m at the point where I find myself looking back on our journey, and taking stock of the lessons I’ve learned. I don’t have a need for them any longer, which is a weird feeling to have learned so much, to have applied it, and now to basically put it to rest. I thought about listing some of the high points here but in the end, the key takeaway that I’ve learned from raising a child is that you are not programming a human being, you are preparing them. The best you can or should ever hope for at any stage of the game is that the lessons that your children learn are the ones that will serve them best throughout their lives. Sometimes these are joyous lessons, and sometimes they are painful — for them and for us — but trying to steer a child through their own rough seas using the navigational charts that served us as parents in our own lives isn’t going to do the kids any favors. They are going to have to find their own way in the world no matter how much we try and force the lessons of our experience upon them.

I have to drag my favorite word back into this: Sonder.

sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

I try very hard to employ this philosophy in my everyday life, and although I came to know this word later in my role as a parent, I feel that I understood it long before I was made aware of it as a concept. My job was never to dictate how my daughter grew up. It was always there to steady her, to offer her opportunities, and to be there when she decided she needed me to be there. My daughter’s life has always been her own, and I have always respected that, and I feel comfortable knowing that going forward, on her own, she has been prepared in the best way we have known how. I am exceedingly proud of the woman she has become at this point, and I look forward to the woman she will continue to grow into over her next four years. I already see in her a better person than I was at her age, and that makes me happy. I’ll never stop worrying about her well being, and despite my entire post the contrary, will continue to offer unsolicited advice because it makes me feel better for having offered it, but I know she’s already on her own path; she’s always been on her own path. I’ve just been extremely lucky to have been along for the ride.


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