Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.

“Dear Family of the Class of 2020,” begins the cheerful letter I recently received. Our son has begun his first year at an American university, and that is an experience in itself for him, but even more so for parents from abroad. Our elder son started at a Dutch university last year. Since then we have heard nothing from the university, other than a tuition bill. As far as the university is concerned, student life is his responsibility. He’s on his own.

Not so in this country, where you more or less give up your child for adoption to a friendly but very controlling family. The university assumes all parental responsibilities, plus others we should have done. Our son’s new alma mater understands that it’s an exciting time not only for our son but also for us parents. As the compassionate but firm letter continues in its leave-it-to-us tone, “We build on the conversations you have had with your son and, we trust, will continue to pursue.”

Our son’s newly adoptive parent has its own rules, as strict as Nurse Ratched’s in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” All drinking of alcohol is prohibited until he is 21 years old and is strictly enforced. If he indulges in drink, then tough disciplinary measures will be swiftly applied. To avoid excesses, it is important that our family take an online course about alcohol abuse and prevention. We must not condone any exceptions at all, even at home. Research shows that the children of parents who go easy on alcohol exhibit more risky behavior.

Then sex. Date rape is a major concern at American universities. Therefore, there is also a required course in which the rights, rules, and responsibilities of students are meticulously explained. In it you will learn also how to intervene as a bystander if you suspect that unauthorized sex is in the pipeline. For example if you see a tipsy girl entering a dormitory with a boy, you can stop them and call the campus police, “because even if a girl says that she wants sex, if she has been drinking, you are responsible and punishable.”

Our son will go on a character-building trip to a nearby wilderness with other students. Do not worry, the university reassures us, your child is safe with us. We know what we are doing. There is plenty of toothpaste, we have extra pajamas and sleeping bags in case the temperature plummets, and there is always a doctor nearby.

P.S. For the parents who have not yet done so, please send us your child’s inseam measurements from groin to heel, so we can provide the perfect-sized bicycle. With surprise, I think back to the first year of camp in Holland when our 12-year-old son was literally thrown into freezing water. By the time he returned, he was pale, blue, undernourished, and frozen.

Our son left a month ago. His family home has been replaced by a dormitory. His new family members are young men and women who live in single rooms up and down the hall. There are graduate-student advisers who play the role of older brothers and sisters, giving tips about living there. He eats in a college with an ersatz “father” and “mother” to whom he always can address all other concerns, academic and personal. They make sure that he eats healthily and ensure that he does not always sit next to the same students, so he has plenty of friends to talk with at the dinner table. There is a health center if he feels sick, and there are psychologists for psychological problems. There are clergy of all denominations for spiritual needs.

It will take our son some time to get used to this. Now that he has grown up and left home, he will finally get the caring parents he deserved all these years. Along with about a thousand new siblings.