Book review: You’re On Your Own




In our house, books have been an essential parenting tool. I must have read a six-foot stack of them just to try to find a clue our way through all the stages from pregnancy to college applications. Some are the type of books that you leave on the familyroom table (or in the kid’s bathroom) for them to discover on their own. They think they’re sneaking around with something provocative or juicy while they’re actually learning from your covert curriculum. During school, the books from our teen’s literature classes started many challenging dinner table discussions about essay homework difficult choices or history or other cultures. Now that she’s in college I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her engineering and NROTC texts, and they’ve been a great springboard for more discussions about careers and leadership.

But some books you display prominently on your own reading stack right by the front door, where everyone can see them, just to make your kids worry about what you’re learning. “You’re On Your Own (but I’m here if you need me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years” is solidly in that category. Whether you read it or not is irrelevant– it has a high shock value just for starting the dialogue.

It was published in 2003, but it’s aged surprisingly well and was updated in 2009. Author Marjorie Savage wrote it from her own sea stories experiences as director of the Parent Program at a large university. (Yes, the parents got so bad that the college felt obligated to tackle their educational burdens too.) She’s one of the first people on campus to get the phone calls from the parents who are irate, upset, or just concerned. She also figured out how to parent two of her own through college, and they’re now successful young adults.

Buried in the middle of the book is a powerful analogy: Imagine that you’re hosting an exchange student at your house for a semester. They’re from a completely foreign culture in Africa or Asia. They wear strange clothes, have a nose ring and tattoos, and maintain an unusual hairstyle. They eat wildly different foods that you’d never considered keeping in the house, let alone eating. They speak English but use a different vocabulary. They share the same basic human values as you but have totally different opinions on music, fashion, life, work, entertainment, living standards, and relationships.

As a host, you’d love spending your time getting to know this person. They might be fascinating or mildly repellent, but you’d be interested in them. You’d like to share their world. You’d want to understand their culture, their background, and their lifestyle. The experience would be unforgettable, and you’d be eager to repeat it with another exchange student.

Now imagine that the exchange student was actually your 18-year-old daughter who’s just finished her first semester in college. A paragraph ago you thought that this exchange student was “fascinating” and someone you wanted to get to know better. Now that she’s actually your offspring, suddenly there’s a problem?

By the way, that analogy is in the chapter titled “You Pierced WHAT?!?”

The book not only explains what stresses and challenges await your “child”, but explains what similar challenges are awaiting YOU. College teens are completing the process of establishing their own identity (which they started years ago at home), yet some parents mistake it for a rejection of family values or a challenge to their college-funding authority. College students lose a lot of home support that they might still need– no one leaves notes on the fridge or nags them about their homework. However, they also finally have to force themselves to internalize the skills you’ve tried to teach them for their entire lives. If they’re not returning your calls or your texts, it’s because they’re busy carrying out their own daily routine and they’re not “out of school” yet. By the time they’re finally “done” with the day and ready to handle a parental chat, much to their surprise it’s 11 PM. (Don’t worry, they’ll get right back to you when they need want money.) If they get home and promptly hibernate for a week, it’s because semester exams were a huge stress with almost zero rest. They’re not ignoring the family or avoiding a problem– they’re recharging their energy in a place where they feel safe and loved. You may want to hear all about their new life (and maybe vicariously enjoy a few thrills of your own), but your progeny won’t appreciate the interrogation… and might even feel it’s a personal attack.

Just in case some educational skills didn’t get covered during high school, Ms. Savage explains the college version. She goes into great detail about a spending plan for the first year in the dorm, including entertainment and transportation. She covers off-campus expenses and explains why commuters have similar financial demands even when they’re living at home. She shows why sex, drugs, and rock&roll alcohol can trip up even the most committed DARE graduate and how college is a “social sandbox” to figure out how to deal with these issues as an adult. (The college may actually be more aware of these issues than the average high school, and with better support staff.) She even discusses all the issues with living off-campus or spending the semester abroad.

Parents feel tempted to solve problems by remote control, and to step in when the authorities seem unsympathetic or negligent. But just like workplace politics, now that their student is in college they (and the parent) may be getting only one side of a nuanced situation. Your teen may be calling or e-mailing you to complain, and there may be a real problem. However, they’re not coming to you for help as much as for support (and maybe some sympathy). They’ll find their own campus support (either in the dorm or in the academic department) and they’ll take charge of solving their own problems. But they still want to share this strange new world with you and maybe get a little translation help. They don’t necessarily want to be guided through it, let alone be pulled out of it.

The best parts of the book are the chapter summaries. She offers tips for both the parents and the teen (because she knows they’re sneaking a read too). She gives the parents role-playing scripts (which the teens also appreciate) and shows how to tell the difference between a complaint and a crisis. Most of all, she shows you how to make your own difficult transition from “parent” to “coach” and even “mentor”. You have to learn to upgrade from “child” to “house guest” and even (if they’re commuting to campus) an “adult boarder”.

After three semesters I finally understand the complex structure and interactions among residential assistants, residents, masters, associates, sponsors, advisers, teaching assistants, peer tutors, campus tutors, administrators, professors, and… deans. Your child has joined a new society, you’re “just” a parent now, and you’ll probably never talk to any of these people. However, you can ask your young adult about them, and as your student is explaining the bureaucracy then they’ll think through their own problems.

The back of the book has a four-year college calendar that answers a lot of your questions before your student even discovers them. She lays out the top three issues for each year and explains how you can offer support without interference or criticism.

Here’s one more idea that’s not explicitly covered in the book: If your child is even mildly curious about the military, the first year of college ROTC is free:  no obligation. The tuition scholarship is a good deal all by itself (students still pay room & board) but the best benefit is the structure and support given by the unit. Not only does it offer a freshman a study group (perhaps mandatory) and a workout program (definitely mandatory!), but it also helps remove a tremendous amount of peer pressure. Roommates quiet down by midnight because Joe has ROTC drill at 5 AM. Friends take their beer & pot elsewhere because Jenny’s not supposed to use drugs or drink underage. Meanwhile the ROTC unit provides a ready-made source of friends and peer mentors, helps with class schedules (to avoid ROTC conflicts), and advises about majors. ROTC certainly isn’t for everybody, but it’s actually a big help for someone who’s already curious about the military. If your teen wants to drop it before sophomore year then there are no commitments– and no pressure to stay in the program. Oddly enough, one reason our young adult has stayed with ROTC is because she knows she has a job waiting for her after graduation. She’s eliminated a huge looming pressure that burdens all college juniors & seniors.

Don’t get me wrong: 30 years ago, the U.S. Naval Academy was a prison exactly the type of rigorous, highly structured environment that I needed to bolster my lack of maturity & discipline. The tuition & fees were quite affordable (although I paid a high personal price). However, a college ROTC program offers the same structure & support with a much more fulfilling and maturing college environment. I may have needed USNA, but our daughter is enjoying the type of college that I really wanted to attend. Unlike me at her age, she seems to be smart enough and organized enough to make it happen.

Related articles:
How much should you save for college?
Early retirement and the kid’s college fund
Parent’s letter to an 18-year-old
Raising a money-smart kid

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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2 Responses to Book review: You’re On Your Own

  1. Deserat says:


    Your comment about ROTC providing structure, discipline and a built in fence against unsavory behaviors is right on – it worked for me in the 1980s in college as well – when in the dorm, I walked in on a cocaine party – they at first were chagrined, then they offered me some – I said no and they said they understood due to the ROTC/military connection. Plus, they knew I was on a scholarship in engineering and had to study or lose the scholarship. Of course, I didn’t indulge (had to have that discipline) – but knowing that the military could randomly drug test me and/or revoke my scholarship and make me go to Lackland to become a slick sleeve airman was quite the ‘stick factor’ in motivation. The external authority bolstering the internal discipline helped at a sometimes topsy-turvy time in one’s life (although, frankly, I was pretty against all of that lifestyle anyhow due to seeing it firsthand destroy lives….)

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