We dropped our first child off at college this week. It’s a moment that Kim and I had been both anticipating and dreading for years.  Caleb is attending Duke University as a member of the class of 2020 and we moved him in to Epworth Hall.

The 9 hour trip home from Durham to Erie, PA was I ride I won’t soon forget. I’ve never experienced such a divergent collection of emotions. Joy and sadness, pride and fear, excitement and nostalgia. And now, three days in to this new reality, the prevailing feeling is just missing him. I know it will get better, and I know that we’ll soon settle into a “new normal,” but right now I just miss my kid. I miss his infectious laugh, I miss the late night conversations after everyone else was in bed, I miss the crazy noises coming from his room – as he worked on his latest invention. I just miss him.

The crushing emotional weight of this season of life is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. And I know this isn’t every parent’s experience – I have known some parents who were counting down the days until their kid left the house – the tension had reached a fever pitch and it was just time for everyone to go their separate ways. I get it. I really do.

But that wasn’t our experience.

I learned something in all this, though. I talked on the phone with my dad during our trip home from dropping off Caleb. He said, “When I went off to college, I never once thought about how hard it was for my parents or grandparents.” And I said immediately, “Neither did I!” I remember my mom was crying, but I was thinking, “Come on mom – you’re overreacting! This is great for me, everything is going to be fine. In fact, I can’t wait until you guys pull on out of here so I can go goof around with my new friends and fully step into this new chapter of my life.”

That’s when the troubling thought hit me… “That’s what Caleb is thinking right now!” He was polite enough not to say it – but surely he was thinking it. He has no idea how hard this is for us, nor does he care. What a punk!

So what’s an 18-year-old kid to do in that moment? They will never understand the depth of emotion that’s wrapped up in that short little “good-bye” for their parents. Should they fake it? Conjure up some crocodile tears by thinking about their dog that died when they were 12? How about downplay it — and just tell mom and dad to knock it off with all the drama – they’re trying to make a good first impression after all.

I think Caleb struck the perfect note. It’s how I would advise all kids in this situation to address their blubbering parents. Don’t fake your emotions, but don’t downplay or ignore theirs either. When you’re parents are struggling with saying good-bye, simply…

Thank them.

There are no tears required, no speeches or awkward interactions in front of your fellow freshman. Just a simple “thank you” will do. After some emotional hugs and kisses at the tailgate of our truck, Caleb looked us both in the eye and simply said, “I want to thank you guys so much for everything you’ve done to make this opportunity possible for me.”

That simple sentence didn’t make all the sadness go away, the tears still came in waves on the ride home. But knowing that Caleb was grateful … it settled something deep inside us. He’s not entitled, he’s not unappreciative, he gets it. And in some small way that moment assured us that he’s going to do just fine in this world.