The Single Most Important Thing to Pack for College

a pile of boxes for what to pack for college

Some of my friends are helping their kids pack for college in the next few weeks.

It’s a busy and emotional time getting ready for drop off day.

What is the most important and most useful item for them to take with them?

Turns out, it’s not something you can order on Amazon.

It’s confidence. Helping our kids feel confident and capable is the best preparation we can provide for their separation from us and their adventures on their own at college. If they believe they are capable of handling whatever they face (and that we are behind them if they need us) we’ve done the best job of preparing them that we can.

As parents, we can get so wrapped up in our own emotions and in our need to try to prepare them for every possible situation they may face while alone at college.

As if our kids are embarking on a solo kayak trip to an uninhabited island.

We make lists, we google what to pack for college….we box up Band-Aids, cold medicine, ibuprofen, and spend weeks covering our dining room tables with all of the things we think they might need while they are away from us. After all, we spent the last eighteen years of our lives watching over them, taking care of them, anticipating their needs. Who would know better than us what they’ll need, right?

I did the same thing. Twice around.

Now I’m three years away from my third child’s “launch” into quasi-independence. I’m starting to see things differently now, especially what’s on the list to pack for college!

I realize these “launch” preparations have really been more to comfort me than a preparation for them. It’s been more about my fears and hopes than theirs. I stacked what I figured were necessities. I gathered a pile of what I thought they might need when they didn’t have me.

But in reality, nothing takes the place of you.

They don’t need ninety-five percent of what we’ve gathered and encouraged them to bring.

I learned this when my oldest came back home after college graduation. I saw him carry in the unopened boxes of Band Aids and paper clips and fabric softener and other but-what-if-he-needs-this stuff. It helped confirm for me what really makes the difference.

What they need more than anything else cannot be packed in a box, it is truly within them.

They need to know they are capable and that you are behind them if they need you.

“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” – Theodore Roosevelt

They need to hear that you are there to lend an ear (or a text chat) for whatever happens. And stuff happens. Some not so terrific – like tough classes, bad grades, difficult roommates, or break ups. Some wonderful – like new friends, the discovery of unexpected interests, and favorite professors.

The best thing we can do to prepare our kids is help them feel confident.

They need to know we trust that they can handle whatever good or bad situations happen in their college experience. Our reassurance that we are there, although at a distance, to listen and to love them unconditionally provides a home base for them  to step away from.

As much as we sometimes still see them as twelve-year-olds, they are young adults and they do end up having to solve their college issues on their own, sometimes with our guidance, sometimes without. Each situation overcome, regardless of the outcome, is another experience on their unique path.

I know I’ll still pack that box of super crucial (total unnecessary) stuff for my last child if he decides to go to college (which is a whole other subject for another day).

It will definitely be a much smaller box this time around.

I’m going to spend more energy on helping him feel capable and building his confidence through making his own decisions and handling his own responsibilities while still at home, and less time piling up paper clips and Band-Aids.

If we can help our kids build confidence and feel independently capable before they actually get to college, we’ve help them pack the most useful item of all.

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