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Keep the lines open

The days are shortening, there is a faint yet foreboding chill in the air, and throughout the country, millions of parents are about to undergo an unsettling experience. They are about to lose a child.

For nearly two decades, they have hoped and prayed, saved and sacrificed, encouraged, implored, and occasionally threatened so that their sons and daughters could attend college. For at least two months, they have been buying Oxford shirts and corduroy slacks, cosmetics and Pop Tarts as if the supermarket and the department store were peculiarly local inventions, not to be duplicated in any college town.

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Soon the family station wagon will groan under the weight of the summer's purchases, along with the required records, tapes, and stereos, and Junior or Sis will be deposited at the door of the dorm, where, with luck, some self-assured upperclass-person will expedite the move inside. It is a poignant day, of joy and of pride in one's offspring's accomplishments, but it is also a day of damp eyes and weak knees.

Standing at the door of the dorm, saying good-bye to one's new collegian, is something like standing at the altar giving one's daughter away in marriage. A great unknown lies ahead, and there is an uneasy mixture of emotions. I know. As a father I have stood at the altar twice and at the dorm door four times, and as a college teacher and administrator I have watched the process in literally thousands of new students and their parents over the last 30 years.

What words of encouragement can one give to these parents? Jokes about freedom to use the phone, the return of hot water to the shower and the family car to the driveway fall short of the mark, for the concerns run deeper. The real question in every parent's mind is, ''What will college do to my child?'' There are two answers, really. A lot, and not very much at all.

You will find that, for better or worse, your example, your teaching, your values and standards have left an indelible mark on your sons and daughters. No college, no matter how distinguished its faculty or vast its resources, can erase it, and most would not presume to try.

Still you will find, especially in the first year, that college will involve some churning and changing that will at times leave you a bit bewildered. Ideas, experiences, even the food will be devoured voraciously, and your off-spring will regularly put forth new and unsettling hypotheses.

It is almost predictable that just about the time you've overcome the nagging numbness and filed away the canceled check for the semester's tuition, you'll receive an impassioned lecture on how materialistic the family is. And more than one parent has discovered, as the family sits down to the laboriously prepared Thanksgiving feast, that the new collegian is now a vegetarian and - never mind the turkey - would someone please pass more squash.

I can only advise you to listen carefully, talk sympathetically, and react slowly. That's not because one has to agree with the cynic who concluded that there's nothing wrong with teen-agers that a reasonable discussion won't aggravate. It's because our college sons and daughters have something to teach us. We need to learn from them and with them. Take an interest in what they are learning. Check a book out of the library. Take a course at a local college. And be prepared for the next assault, for what was argued so intensely over cranberries and squash will, by winter recess, almost certainly be passe, having been supplanted by new hypotheses and new convictions, deeply held and passionately articulated.

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That's why it's so important to keep open the lines of communication. That's not always easy, for your sons and daughters will not always be very good about keeping in touch with you. Occasionally their new ideas and experiences will be momentous enough to warrant a call - collect - or a letter home, but such extraordinary measures will usually include a request for something else, probably money.

Still there is nothing more welcome than a letter or a care package from home to put a student's wobbly week in perspective. Keep up those phone calls. Send off that note. Stay in touch. Those formidable collegian sons and daughters are not yet quite so secure and self-sufficient as they seem.

Of course, they'll change. Who could wish it otherwise? ''To live is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often,'' declared John Henry Newman. That's why, despite your devotion, most of you will still find that over the next four years college will indeed take your children from you. But they will emerge as young adults, more mature, more loving, more tolerant of your foibles, more thankful for your strengths. You will lose your children over these next four years, but you will gain new friends, and the lifelong rewards for both of you will be great.

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