President Frank Shushok Jr. on porch of Administration Building

President Frank Shushok Jr. 

By Roanoke College News

Frank Shushok column: College advice from a parent still learning as a president

This piece originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It is reprinted here with permission. 

It was just a few years ago when we dropped off our son for college. While I have 30 years of working with college students under my belt, a surprisingly unfamiliar emotion engulfed me as my wife, Kelly, and I walked away from our son’s new “home.”

The excellent advice I had offered parents over the years now was mine to practice. I had no idea that what I had gently coached others to do as an administrator would be so hard to practice as a parent.

First, I was supposed to remember that our son’s successes or failures no longer were our responsibility, but his. This would mean setting up our relationship parameters with general expectations, and extending significant degrees of freedom for our son to explore his own goals, identities and life management details.

I was white-knuckled and sometimes gut-punched as I tried to stand by and watch him thrive without our help, or procrastinate without much self-awareness, or fall short in an academic, social or leadership effort. But I had the opportunity to watch our son “become.” His first year in college was not so much about success or failure. It was about becoming himself — growth made possible only through his independent choices apart from his parents.

Even though I knew his experience was valuable, I had to wrestle with whether what he was “becoming” met my definition of success. I wondered whether I, like many parents, might be pressing “success” too hard, which I know can ramp up our kids’ stress and anxiety.

As an educator, I am aware of the recent Harvard University study, which found 80% of middle and high school students think their parents care more about personal achievements than being kind. I realized that kindness, like so many other wonderful traits, is something we become, not achieve. If we are not very careful as parents, our hopes for our children might be perceived by them to be related to what they accomplish rather than who they are.

With a little time behind me since my son’s first year of college, I am waking up to some important insights — none more important than the revelation that I, too, was experiencing a major transition. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson describes eight stages of psychosocial development, one of which takes place between ages 40 and 65.

These years can be rich, yet also hard. In fact, Erikson says adults face a psychological crisis during this period, a stage he calls “Generativity vs. Stagnation.” Generativity, according to Erikson, includes taking stock of where you have been, where you are going, and whether or not your life is making a meaningful contribution.
I think Erikson is talking about “becoming” — not the kind my son is learning on the brink of adulthood, but the kind available to us parents in the phase we often call midlife. Just as the transition from high school to college can be daunting for our students, being a middle-aged adult can be similarly challenging.

In both cases, the process begins with the hope that there is something or someone new for us to do or become, enough that we will take risks and sometimes make scary choices. For us, that means finding our own kind of independence apart from our children, and the daily parental joys, tasks and stresses that have marked our lives for the past several decades. It means looking toward what is next, all while cherishing our evolving relationships with our children and trusting that the rough patches will be far less than the enormous and cumulative growth that both of our futures hold.

So, launching kids is hard work. Letting our students find the space to explore, to question, to struggle, to learn, to fail, and to flourish is not for the faint of heart.

Likewise, let yourself find the same. After all, we are all on the long journey toward becoming ourselves.

Dr. Frank Shushok Jr. is president of Roanoke College. Contact him at: