With kids back at school and fall schedules in full swing, I’ve found myself involved in dozens of conversations about college visits. Parents of high school juniors and seniors ask where our kids attended: big or little, city or country, liberal arts or university, early decision or regular application. Since I have nothing to offer that could possibly ease the mounting and contagious communal anxiety about the college process, I decided to share a valuable lesson I learned on my first college visit: The 24-Hour Rule.

Ten years ago and not five minutes into our first college road trip, our oldest daughter asked me not to comment on any college for at least 24 hours. “What! Not comment?” I almost drove off the road. “No editorializing or pontificating.” I asked if she was kidding. “No ranking or comparing.” What was this Chatty-Cathy mother to do? A muzzle would’ve been a good idea but we didn’t have one so I vowed to contain my moans of dismay and squeals of delight as we made our way across three New England college campuses.

Outside one Student Union, I cringed at the piles of cigarette butts but eventually considered that trivial compared to the mention of a “clothing optional” dorm. Tour guides walking backwards, down stairs and around corners had me constantly on edge but dried food on supposedly clean plates in one of the cafeterias took the cake. I must have been scrunching my face outside a set of co-ed bathrooms in a freshman dorm because our daughter nudged me and reminded me that she currently shared a bathroom with her brother.

On a positive note, I hummed approvingly through award-winning gardens and bounced along tree-lined paths connecting old brick buildings. I perked up when one admission rep mentioned the kind of student his college was looking for. I thought, “Ooh. Ooh. He’s talking about our daughter,” and then silently checked off the many reasons why any school would be lucky to have her. “Check, check, check, check.” At the end of the day, I thought I passed the test since all of my responses had been non-verbal.

It was harder to contain my opinions that night at dinner when our daughter rattled off the pluses and minuses of each campus. I put on my therapist hat and stuck to neutral statements like, “Hmmm,” “Interesting,” and “Sounds like …” The more I thought about this 24-Hour Rule, the more sense it made.
In the comfort of a restaurant and far away from tour guides, college rankings and admissions statistics, I began to understand why our daughter needed time to process what was going on in her life. I remembered the advice my mother-in-law received years ago when shopping for a dress for our wedding: “Wear beige and keep your mouth shut.” I realized that fading into the background while our grown children step forward and take charge of their own lives was a good thing.

That night in a little college town three hours from home, our daughter’s 24-Hour Rule for College Visits became my 24-Hour Rule for Life. This kind of delayed response time is something I planned to offer anyone I cared about and not just our children. I can’t think of a more respectful way to be in conversation with others than to quietly but attentively hold the space while they reflect on and sort through the details of their lives. I can only imagine how helpful this rule will be as I move up in the hierarchy of our family tree. I’m sure my future daughter-in-law and sons-in-law will someday agree.

Now that our kids are in their twenties and talking through decisions about apartments, jobs, friends and significant others, I do my best to say less and, at most, offer this vote of confidence: “You’ll figure it out.”