It is hard to feel truly known in college.
As we grow up and try new things and go new places, there are very few times when we feel like people fully know us. Our families and our childhood friends know so much about us—our home address, the name of our childhood dog, what we wanted to be when we grew up when we were five years old.
Our friends at college know us too, but in a different way. They know our go-to food at the cafeteria, our anxious mannerisms when we have procrastinated too long, all the stories of late-night study breaks.
Between these two sets of people, these two places that are so dear to us, there is a disconnect. There is not one group of people that knows us completely. Who knows all of our stories, all of our insecurities, all of our history, all of our junk, and loves us anyway. Who knows us in a way that reflects the way the Father intimately knows us and loves us.
You as parents want to know us like that. You want to know us that deeply. To know every detail of our lives. To know how we are doing in our classes and what our friends like to do for fun and what we did last night and if we are feeling homesick.
But I am guessing that you do not always feel like you know your college kids. You probably worry about the things you don’t know about them. You might feel like they push against your efforts to know them.
If you want your college kids to allow you to really know them, if you want to help them feel more known in this time of transition and unsteadiness, you must be willing to be known yourself.
Do your kids know you? Really know you? Let them get to know you not just as a parent, but as a person—a real, messy, imperfect person. Tell them about who you were as a young adult, and even how you learned from some of the dumb decisions you made. Let them see who you are now, along with the struggles you face.
Questions about your kids’ lives will be far more effective if you are willing to answer the same questions of your own life.
One-sided vulnerability does not work well in any relationship because that’s not cultivating true friendship and trust and commitment. If you as parents have never modeled vulnerability for us and with us before, the expectation to talk about the deep and hard things of our lives feels very scary and almost unfair.
Being vulnerable with us, your young adult children, reveals that you trust us. It shows that our relationship is built on more than parental authority or fear. Fear is what keeps parents from being vulnerable and it’s what keeps kids from being honest and vulnerable, too.
I heard this quote at a camp once and I think about it a lot: “Vulnerability breeds vulnerability.” This concept has proved true in my life over and over again. One person’s vulnerability empowers others to be vulnerable. But someone has to go first. When parents go first in this way, it has the unique potential to deepen the relationship with college-aged children.
I know this has been the case in my relationship with my mom. My mom’s choosing to be vulnerable with me and telling me about the regrets and hurts of her life (both from when she was my age and as an adult and wife and mom now), has made all the difference in our relationship. Her trust in me, her vulnerability and authenticity, has given me space to be vulnerable with her too. And it has helped me feel less alone.
It is far too easy to feel alone in college. To feel not known. To feel like you’re the only one. It is especially easy to feel alone and not known in the context of our families. It is so easy to believe the lie that no one else in my family has ever struggled with the things I have. It is so easy to think that my family will judge me for some of the things I have been through.
When my mom is honest with me about her struggles, I feel this deep, comforting sense of “you are not alone.” And then I am not afraid to be honest with my mom because I know that I am not alone in my struggles, in my shame, in my sin. When I am vulnerable with my parents, I feel a little more known and a little less alone.
To have someone know hard things about you, things that have caused deep shame and hurt, and to love you anyway is one of the most powerful experiences. One of the hardest for sure. One of the scariest. But one of the most meaningful. And to be able to give that feeling to someone else is powerful too. To know my mom in a deeper and more genuine way and to love her anyway—itis a gift for us both.
Here is what Tim Keller has to say about being known and being loved in his book The Meaning of Marriage:
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
Fully known and fully loved—this is what vulnerability means. When we rest in being fully known and fully loved by God, then we can enter into that space with others. God already knows the worst parts of us and loves us anyway. He accepts us, never rejects us. No sin is too big or too dirty to make Him leave. Because of this truth of the Gospel, we don’t have to be afraid of bringing our darkness into the light.
Parents, your college-aged kids need you to go first. They need your vulnerability. They need to know you and be known by you. I didn’t even know how much I needed my mom’s honesty. Her vulnerability enabled my vulnerability. My vulnerability with my mom helped me feel less alone and understand God’s love better.
Would you courageously step into that space with your kids? Would you let love speak louder than fear and be honest and vulnerable with your kids? It’s scary, I know. It won’t be easy. But it’s worth it.