Back to college tip: Resist urge to be the Tim Gunn of your kid's dorm

As a somewhat dreary and rain-soaked August comes to a close, the thoughts of middle-aged parents naturally turn to college. This weekend marks the sixth straight year a student in the Jensen household has been dropped off at such an institution, so my wife and I have learned a thing or two — like how to let the kids do all the heavy lifting or how it’s best not to introduce yourself to the resident assistant (or anyone at the school below the age of 22, frankly), or how to make posters stick to those barren dormitory cinder block walls coated with barnacle-resistant marine-grade paint (sorry, but if you have to ask about basic adhesives, you’re not ready for the advanced stuff).

Here’s the most important lesson we’ve learned about move-in day at school, whether at a small college or a large university: Leave the kid alone. Simple, right? Once your children have become old enough to serve in the military, to cast votes in an election or to accept the free snacks at Costco without asking a parent’s permission, they are capable of deciding how they want their dormitory room to be decorated.

Oh, I know what you youngish parents are thinking right now. Dorm room decor? Why would I care about that? Oh, sure, when your kid is still wearing diapers or riding the big yellow cheese to school or headed to a first sleepover party, dorm room decor is the farthest thing from your mind. But something happens when a son or daughter is accepted into college and you face the prospect of leaving them behind — with all the anxiety and tears that entails (in you, not necessarily the kids). Remember how you felt the need to have a “just so” baby’s room? College dorms have become the new baby room. I kid you not.

Just check out the displays at Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Kohl’s, Walmart and every other retailer that’s found a way into this racket. It’s not just extra-long single sheets or Tide detergent pods (for cleaning, not eating, Gen Z-ers). We’re talking about elaborate window treatments, strings of decorative lights, faux fur throw pillows to match dorm-sized rugs and duvets. Bed Bath & Beyond might be the undisputed champion of the category — their website boasts no fewer than 195 personalized dorm accessories. And that’s just the picture frames, towels, bathrobes and other crap with your child’s name, initials or at least the name of the college fraternity or sorority on them. There’s thousands more non-personalized items after that, not to mention a handy checklist and a “buy and hold” program that might even deliver directly to your child’s dorm room.

Think you have the consumer will to resist such merchandising? Just walk into Target right now and see how their elaborate dorm room displays of summer have already been ransacked by anxious parents. On the Facebook page devoted to parents of current University of Maryland students, the last two weeks have not only produced a tidal wave of first-year questions, from proper rug sizes and styles (and to rent or own) to how best to “loft” a bed, but also parents proudly posting photographs of finished dorm rooms like it was Home and Garden. There’s even been a lengthy conversation about shower caddies. Shower caddies! The College Park dorms may be overcrowded this semester, but you can bet that even the converted lounges will look quite impressive with dangling strings of photographs and wall-mounted jewelry organizers.

Here are some favorite options for the stylish dorm room; see if you can pick the fake: A cube-shaped brass terrarium, a metallic embroidered pouf, an app-enabled smart light, and a customized decorative pillow with your favorite hashtag. Sorry, it was a trick question. None are fake. You can find them all at BBB (as we like to call it in the college parent business).

Now, gentle reader, I’d like to brag that my wife and I haven’t fallen for any of these trend-setters. But we lost that battle in Year One when we were buying expandable curtain rods for the closet (don’t ask). But we’ve eased off. We will miss our youngest as he returns to school, that’s true. We may help him unpack. He might even get a farewell lunch. But our most elaborate purchase this year was a cordless handheld vacuum. Hey, he’s got to keep the place clean. The young man doesn’t appear to feel shortchanged by this inattention to decor, just relieved that he wasn’t mentioned by name in yet another published confession of his father’s foibles. Right, Daniel?

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