Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do is 'be there', ready and able to help their kids out of situations they can't handle
THE TIME of year is again approaching when anxious parents will be abandoning their beloved offspring in unfamiliar places for three or more years.

For most young people, going to university is their first experience of living away from home and their first move towards independence from the family nest.

The move is a little artificial since they'll be home for a large part of the year, thanks to those wonderful things called university vacation periods. However, much of the significance of the change is symbolic, as well as practical.

Going to university means that for the first time, you have to learn how to do everything for yourself, without relying on your parents to bail you out when you can't manage or simply can't be bothered. You realise just how much your parents did for you at home. All those mundane tasks which you never even think about, are now all up to you.

Doing all the washing-up, or not doing the washing-up and finding mouldy coffee cups at the end of term; washing your own clothes, or wearing the same socks six times in a row - life is suddenly full of choices when you get to university or a college of higher education.

You begin to learn about yourself, make decisions about how you want to live, and have the freedom to be whoever you want to be, without anyone casting a disapproving eye over your behaviour.

Of course, this doesn't mean that everyone who goes to university or college becomes an unwashed, cannabis-smoking, greebo who sleeps till two and eats cold baked beans for breakfast. A lot of students find that they are pretty middle-of-the-road individuals who their parents would probably approve of. Well, maybe...

Most people I know found living away from home a little daunting at first, mainly because it's not as easy to go running to your parents asking for help, or for them to intervene and fight on your side - although the phone is always handy as a helpline. But pretty soon, you learn how to handle things yourself, how to pay phone bills (!), how to approach the university authorities, and - perhaps most importantly - how to stand up for yourself.

For many parents, this change is difficult because their "baby" is suddenly all grown-up and doesn't need them anymore. However, almost every student I know does still need their parents. They don't cook your meals or do your washing anymore, but you still look to your parents for support, and at exam time phone calls home usually increase.

It seems that parents sometimes simply feel like a distant financial resource for their children, who only seem to call when they've reached their overdraft limit or can't pay their rent. But, though financial issues are usually a major source of communication (or, argument) between parent and offspring, students still need their parents in many ways. Perhaps the most important thing is simply knowing that they are there, and will always be ready and willing to help out if they get themselves into a situation they can't handle.

It's a big change after 18 years at home living with your parents, and an important step towards achieving complete autonomy which eventually will include financial independence - or so your parents hope!

However, there is no need for parents to worry about losing touch with their sons and daughters, since they will always be at the end of a phone line - asking for money, advice, sympathy or support.