Saturday, July 20, 2024

Things to Take to College That You Can’t Buy at Target

Extra-long sheets. Shower shoes. The wall hooks and putty that hold things up but don’t leave marks.

Most colleges provide a list of things that new students might bring if they’re living on campus, and most big-box stores stock all of it and then some.

But there’s another list you may want to consider, containing things that aren’t at the end of any Target aisle or on anyone’s Amazon wish list.

It includes the form that can allow you to help with an adult child’s health care — and one of your own creation that gives carte blanche to call you if the child somehow ends up in handcuffs. And how about some midnight pizza facilitation?

Any such list comes with a caveat. A few of these things may be nice, but doing most of them is a bit much.

“When the tether to home is very thick, students don’t form the bonds in the new place,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult.” “You can inadvertently send the message that ‘I don’t think you’re capable there without me doing this for you,’ and we never want to send that message.”

The list below should give you a few good ideas. None of them cost more than $50 or so, and many are free, which is helpful given the staggering size of tuition bills.

Let us know if you have other suggestions. We’ll draw from reader feedback to create another list next summer — or this month if we get enough new ones quickly.

Health care power of attorney

Shari George Polur, an elder care and disability lawyer in Louisville, Ky., gave two of her daughter’s friends a novel high school graduation present that she hoped they would never have to use: a health care power of attorney.

At 18, individuals gain the right to make their own medical decisions, as well as the privacy protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. A health care power of attorney empowers parents or guardians to make medical decisions, and may also permit them to access medical records if their child is incapacitated.

“You can authorize as little or as much as you want,” Ms. Polur said. She also suggests getting a general durable power of attorney for legal and financial affairs, which would permit parents to handle those matters if need be, too.

Consent for students not yet 18

While privacy laws may keep a parent from learning much about a child’s illness at college, students who get there before they turn 18 may not be able to get some kinds of care at all without explicit parental permission.

The University of Central Florida, for instance, requires a consent form when such students seek counseling. Karen R. Hofmann, director of the school’s counseling and psychological services, suggests talking about it and not just signing it. If a teenager has never seen a therapist before, parental encouragement can reduce any reluctance or shame in doing so.

AT&T card — and a get-out-of-jail-free one

If you went to college and did so in the pay phone era, you probably remember the cards you could use to pay for calls. Buy one on eBay as a kind of sight gag — or just print out a picture of one and slap it in a cheap frame. Then, hand it over with instructions to call you first when big challenges come up, no matter what they are.

For instance, arrests happen — fake IDs, disorderly conduct, protests and trespassing. But if your child is more scared of you than of the authorities, that call may never come.

Try a script like this: “You’re smart enough to stay out of trouble. But if you slip up or get caught up in something unfortunate, let me be your first call so I can help you sort it out.” That sorting might include fronting some bail money or funds for fines, by the way. In effect, the calling card can be an get-out-of-jail free one, too.

If your child could get pregnant or impregnate someone else, remember that not all health care options are readily available in all states or areas. Want to be the first person to get a call about that, too? Say so. The second call in that instance might be to the school, which may have emergency funds available to defray travel costs.

Authorized user (also emergency) card

Parents may remember how easy it was for an undergraduate to get a credit card back in the day.

Those days are no more, because of changes in federal law. Now, you generally have to be 21 to apply on your own.

Consider a so-called authorized user card instead. It has the kid’s name on it, but the charges still accrue to a single account — yours.

Wary? The card can serve as an only-use-in-an-emergency spending vehicle. However you use it, the card also helps your child establish a credit history and a decent credit score. This is true, however, only if you continue to pay your bills on time and maintain other good habits, since your good behavior is what will accrue to the authorized user.

Medical history and shared documents

There will come a time when a call or a text arrives from the sick or the injured, and the moment may be inopportune for you.

“They will be sitting there, it will be 1 a.m., and they will need stitches,” said Lisa Heffernan, a co-founder of Grown & Flown, a community and website for parents of young adults.

You may not pick up, and a question may linger: When was the last tetanus shot, anyway?

One solution might be a digital documents folder, where you can store immunization and prescription records and any pediatric medical history that could come in handy. You might add in photos of a driver’s license, health insurance cards, the primary passport page and anything else that might be useful or get lost.

Traces of yourself

Eleven years ago, Chanel Reynolds told Ron about the painful lessons she had learned about financial preparation after her husband’s untimely death. One recommendation she had was to leave traces of yourself; you can spend years preserving a child’s artwork without ever creating an artifact of your own life that your child may cherish later.

When her son went to college several years ago, Ms. Reynolds sneaked a few handwritten cards into various things the two had packed, knowing that he’d find them days or weeks later. He did, and he would text when he turned them up.

Then came a call that warmed her heart. “He mentioned on the phone that he reread one of my cards,” she said. “I asked which one, and he said the one where I said I was proud of him and trusted him and I was entirely confident he would be able to figure things out — even when it was hard.”

The good part about leaving multiple notes is that it gives you several chances to produce something worthy of rereading. Got a favorite Bible verse in your family or other sacred snippet? Use it here. A legendary maxim from a grandparent? Slip it into a sock.


Get one last hug. Walk away from the airport, bus station or dorm without looking over your shoulder and bursting into tears. Then, send your new college student a playlist to listen to filled with meaningful tracks.

Maybe there are songs that you sang together when your child was in kindergarten. Perhaps you were lucky enough to play music together. For parents who took kids to their first concert or their first 10, there are surely highlights from those set lists that are worthy of inclusion. As you feel it, you’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky.

This may be a delicate matter for people whose children find their musical taste cringeworthy. Include those songs anyway, then mix in meaningful tunes that they introduced to you, perhaps without their even knowing (until they get the playlist) how much you love their tunes.

The first pizza

Food is love for so many families, but you can’t easily provide it if you’re far away. Food is also community, and it can help you build a new one if you share it with the right strangers.

This is why the Grown & Flown founders recommend spotting kids their first couple of late-night pizzas, with the only proviso being that they use them to lure a few new people into their circles.

A pro tip: Lots of college dorm and common rooms have doors that close automatically. Grown & Flown’s other founder, Mary Dell Harrington, suggests adding a rubber doorstop to your offering so the pepperoni scent wafts down the hall and attracts other hungry people.

Safe words

Many parents give lots of unsolicited advice to their teenagers. Your child may be tired of it. Perhaps you know it’s a problem but just can’t help yourself.

“That advice may not help someone develop skills for solving the issues that they see and encounter,” said Frances Cloud, director of the counseling center at Spelman College.

If this is you, Ms. Cloud suggests acknowledging it with your child and providing a safe word children can utter each time they yearn to speak with you but can’t bear any judgment, feedback or instruction.

Ms. Cloud has no particular go-to word. “The word is not as important as what happens after you say it,” she said.

A gift for you, too

Ms. Lythcott-Haims, or “Dean Julie” to the thousands of Stanford students who benefited from her work between 1998 and 2012, is a bit wary of this entire list-making enterprise and how a child might view it if you go overboard. “Get a therapist, get a hobby,” she said. “Do not rain sadness upon a child who is trying to start a new phase of life.”

Heard. But still.

You do want phone calls, for any reason or none at all, and the availability of the safe word might make children more comfortable making them. So after all the thoughtfulness and packing and tuition — and, yes, Target — it is fine to ask, gently, to hear their voices on a regular basis.

After all, you may also be giving the gift of keeping the kid on the family phone plan.

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