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Children starting University - How will they cope? And how will you?


A day long anticipated since you held that little bundle in your arms. The dream of them achieving their potential and taking up their place at the university of their (and your?) aspirations….. If you think that your parenting days are over, now that they are starting university, think again. Fiona McKenzie from Carfax Education shares her experiences as her children fled the nest and then came home to roost again.


I am not sure who was more nervous about my first child starting University, her or me! A four-year language degree at Bristol meant she had decided to crack on and go straight to University from school. In the days leading up to Fresher’s week the big questions in her mind were: what if I don’t make friends? What if I don’t have the right clothes? And what if I have made the wrong choice? All insecurities that I am sure many new students go through. So it was a relief, after many midnight conversations leading up to the start date, that her first phone call was to say she had already made several new friends and that University was great. The new found freedoms of no bedtimes and no motherly nagging was obviously outweighing any previous nerves. There were bumps along the way. She realised that she should have done a joint honours course in languages but by now it was too late to change, without dropping out and starting again. She also only had 10 hours of lectures a week and having been used to being frenetically busy at school, she struggled to know what to do with all the extra hours in her week. She also realised that the friends you make in the first week are seldom the ones that you are still spending time with by the end of your first term. Being in catered Halls meant she was not having to worry about cooking but she missed having a space to gather with all her new friends that was not either in an expensive bar or crammed onto someone’s bed. Years later many of her good friends are from her Bristol days and it is wonderful to see how many of them she keeps up with and the huge range of exciting things they have all gone on to do.


By the time number 2 headed off to Reading, he was raring to go. A year of working and travelling in South Africa and Australia had given him the much needed confidence to throw himself into University life. But even though he was used to being away from home, university life was different from a gap year. It was a challenge to get back in to the way of working, getting used to organising his own time, and making sure the work was all done and handed in on time. Plus realising just how well he had been taught Philosophy at school and how much harder it was to follow it more independently at University. He also had very few hours of teaching contact time each week, which I think makes it harder to stay motivated. For him, it was joining a sports team that made all the difference. Whilst he enjoyed his time in Halls, his real mates came from that shared camaraderie of playing in a team and the social life that spun out from that. It took him nearly a year to find the right people to talk to about getting into sports societies but once he cracked it, he never looked back. Catering for himself was a challenge he loved, I had spent 5 days teaching him and his friends how to cook for a household on a limited budget and he relished putting all of that into practice. I was relieved too, as I knew he was eating properly, even if the budget sausages had come from the reduced shelf in the local Co-op.


Number 3 was forced to drop his gap year plans when it became clear that university fees were going to rise exponentially if he did not take up a place before the fee increase. He quickly crammed in some travelling in the summer break before starting at Durham so at least he had some tales to tell as ice breakers in the College bar in the first few days. Being No 3 means you have had the opportunity to listen and learn from your older siblings, so he knew to throw himself into things right from the get-go – join the sports teams, get stuck into societies, make a splash in your first term, play hard and work hard. Those three years go very quickly and he had learnt from the others that you need to hit the ground running to make the most of it all. He loved the collegiate environment of Durham and quickly made good friends through his sport and study buddies from his lectures.


Now with No 4, you need to be different don’t you? Why would you go down the same path as your siblings? She had planned an action-packed gap year that included learning Italian so she could take up a place at John Cabot University, an American Liberal Arts college in the centre of Rome. She not only embraced a new culture, language and city but also the challenges of having to do maths again, as part of the core modules of the Liberal Arts programme! As an Art Historian who last did maths at GCSE, this was one of several shocks to the system that the American curriculum threw at her. Her first semester sharing with a Ukranian and a Russian girl during the Russian invasion was akin to a crash course in United Nations peace keeping; the Great British Bake Off kept her sanity when she felt her Englishness slipping away from her and she managed to persuade several of her American baseball playing friends of the joys of cupcakes and English muffins. As one of the very few English degree-seeking students there, it has been tough at times but the experience of learning about the Sistine chapel or the Colosseum whilst on site in the very places has been amazing. And of course we have loved visiting there and learning about her Rome and meeting her friends from all over the globe.


How did we feel as parents as the children all flew the nest and went off to start their next educational adventure? At first I felt sad, I really missed them and their company but I was also proud of how they embraced the independence and made decisions about their futures and forged new friendships. I was also surprised at just how much they needed us still, regular phone and skype calls, whether it was about what to make with the contents of the student fridge that night or how to claim on insurance when your laptop has been nicked. I loved the fact that they used to send me essays to proof-read – I would never have known about gift-giving in different cultures if No 3 had not been studying Anthropology!


What advice would I give parents whose children are starting out at University?


  • You still need to be there for them. They still really need you despite the new-found independence. In fact, maybe because of it. They like to know that there is still the solid base of home to fall back on.

  • It is a transition phase for everyone and whilst they will be excited about what lies ahead, they will also be anxious about whether it will live up to their expectations.

  • Play down the “it will be the best years of your life” - the first few weeks, months can be tough and they may feel they are ‘failing’ if they are not enjoying every minute of it.

  • Learning to navigate their new freedoms can often lead to temporary disasters. You need to be there to listen and try not to judge, as they lick their wounds secure in the fact that although they may have made a massive fool of themselves in front of new friends, they are still safe and secure in the love of the family.

  • Tricky flat mates, grungy accommodation, struggling with the course – any combination of these can knock a child’s confidence and make them doubt they have made the right decision. Listen to them, back them but don’t try to solve it for them. It’s mostly just a question of time. They will make their own way through it and mostly it will work out fine. If it turns out to be the wrong course or the wrong Uni it is not the end of the world - there are always other options.

  • Some children find the change from a highly-structured school environment to the university life of ‘work-it-out-for-yourselves’ a real challenge - be understanding but not interfering. Do not forget you cannot ring up the university and ask for a report on your son or daughter – they are over 18 – the universities are not legally allowed to share information about them with you. This is definitely not school where you can book an appointment with the teacher to find out why they failed a test.

  • If you are missing the day to day contact with your children, give them a ring – they may not think it is cool to be calling home and they may be avoiding it if they are homesick. Let them know about the normal things that are going on at home – what the dog did today – Snapchat pictures of what you are all up to.

  • Try not to let them know how much you are missing them, you do n0t want them to feel guilty about enjoying themselves whilst you are feeling miserable. Try and keep yourself occupied, use the extra time to try new things.

What I have really learnt is that going to University does not mean they are leaving home. They are back every holidays and those summer breaks are very long! So whilst three of the children are now in the world of work, they have all cycled back through home and spent some time living back with us and secretly I am rather hoping that No 4 will do the same when she finishes! They are such great company, with their own ideas, views honed by study and the intellectual debate of their peers. They keep us on our toes and our fridge empty!


Article by Fiona McKenzie, Head of Education at Carfax Education.

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