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A letter to my son as he leaves for college

By Deborah Mitchell, Special to CNN
updated 1:46 PM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Deborah Mitchell poses with her son, Nick, when he was 6 months old.
Deborah Mitchell poses with her son, Nick, when he was 6 months old.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • iReporter Deborah Mitchell wrote a letter to her oldest son, who will soon leave for college
  • She offers some "unofficial commandments," in case he needs reminding
  • First, "Don't hold onto hurt or anger or people you don't love or who don't love you back"
  • Mitchell: "Offer a firm handshake. Show up on time. Help out. Be present"

Editor's note: Deborah Mitchell is a writer in Texas; her book, "Growing Up Godless: A Parent's Guide To Raising Kids Without Religion," will be released by Sterling Publishing in spring 2014. Her previous iReport about raising her children without religion was among the most-viewed iReports of all time, and she blogs at Raising Kids Without Religion.

The older of her two sons will be a freshman at a private liberal arts college in Texas. She first shared this essay on CNN iReport.

(CNN) -- Already the days are getting shorter, nature's signal that everything must come to an end and begin again. It's almost here -- the freedom you have longed for all year and the day I've dreaded for months, perhaps, even, since the day you were born. As a parent, you quickly realize that life is one long series of letting go: watching your kid crawl, then walk, then run and then drive away.

There will be the physical distance once you leave, of course, but the emotional distance will hurt, too. Boys, I know, grow up and are absorbed by the world -- by careers, friends and wives.

In less than a month, I'll release you, like a falcon, into the future. Where and how high you fly will be completely up to you. You won't see me cry -- I won't burden you. But I can barely write this now without laying my head down on my desk and crying for all the happy childhood memories that will never be experienced again and for all the things we meant to do but didn't.

I remember sitting in the dirt with you at age 3, watching the tractors clear the field behind our house. You were fascinated then -- as you still are -- with motors and machines. I remember every tennis match you played, teaching you to snow ski at Copper Mountain, your delight at snorkeling in Cozumel and your fear on the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney World.

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Watching you learn and grow has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Now you will have one of the greatest experiences of your life, and I hope that you will remember these unofficial commandments for the journey ahead of you:

1. Don't hold onto hurt or anger or people you don't love or who don't love you back. My great-grandfather used to tell me, "Worry will kill you." So will hurt and anger. Nothing grows more malignant with time than bad feelings. Let go of people and experiences that have caused you pain. Move on and live in peace.

2. Take chances. As parents, we spend so much time and effort trying to protect our kids that we take away the chance to learn from mistakes, to grow from failure and to build confidence through success. For years, I've told you to be careful, but I was wrong. So start now -- it's not too late. Take flying lessons. Start that business. Ask out the girl in class, even if you're afraid of rejection.

3. Same-sex marriage, abortion, health care and religion: Don't vote into law or argue with others about choices that are not yours to make. On the other hand, help pass laws that promote fairness.

4. You are in no way obligated to follow in the footsteps of either parent. Although I've brought you up free of religion, as you make your way through college and learn more about science and history and philosophy, you may find that life with God is better than life without. The choice will be yours. I will be proud of you no matter where you land on the spectrum of belief.

5. Whatever you do -- please -- remember that every text you send, every e-mail you write, every picture you post, can surface later, at any time. Don't be a Carlos Danger. Don't let yourself down or your future spouse down.

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6. If you use a credit card, pay it off every month without fail. Continue to tithe to your future by setting aside $10 or $20 a week. Stick to your rule of waiting three days to make a purchase, which has helped you avoid emotional or impulse purchases. This will be important as you continue through college because these next few years will be some of your leanest, yet this is the time in your life when you can also build self-control and financial security.

7. Don't expect life to be fair, for things to even out in the end or to get your just desserts. Believing in these ideas can cripple your emotional growth. Life will be far less fair than what you have experienced at home. Things don't really even out in the end, and you don't get what you deserve. Sometimes you get more. Sometimes less. You're not entitled to anything except respect from others. You will have both home runs and strikes. Don't quit. Life does not reward natural talent or intelligence or beauty. You will be rewarded for a positive attitude, for your competence, but most of all, for your grit.

8. I saw a lot of academic dishonesty when I was an instructor, and I know you saw it as a student. If you take words, answers or even values from others, then you are nothing more than a receptacle. Don't be a container for everyone else's junk. Be your own work of art.

9. The underpinnings of treating others well is treating ourselves well, too, for we cannot give love and respect that we do not have. Don't hurt yourself with too much food or drink. Be the man who does the right thing, who is fair but also be fair to yourself.

10. These things you already know, but it doesn't hurt to repeat: Always look people in the eye. Offer a firm handshake. Show up on time. Help out. Be present. Your phone is not a person -- pay attention to those around you. Don't text and drive -- keep others safe, too. It's OK to discriminate as long as it's based on behavior. Don't be tolerant of disrespect.

I know you'll be searching for your own answers, but if you ever need an ear or a shoulder, have a question or a problem, I'm here. Always -- no matter how far you go in distance or time.

Even adults reach out. It's not a sign of weakness but of strength. Over the next four years, time will seem to go by faster than the previous four. Change comes more quickly and more dramatically. Enjoy every moment. There is no grand prize at the end of your life, no all-expense paid trip to utopia. This is your final destination. The prize is here, now, in every breath you take, every new friend, every kiss, every challenge, every exciting piece of information you discover.

What would you write in a letter to your child? What words of wisdom have your parents passed along to you? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter @CNNLiving or on Facebook at CNN Living.

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