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Why Parents in China Sleep in Tents at Their Kids' College

Photograph by Getty Images

My husband grew up camping in the wilds of California and never tires of extolling the virtues of camping life. From our very first date, I’ve been clear: I’m not sleeping in a tent. Not now, not ever. Try as he might to woo me with pictures of national parks and their soaring mountains and rushing rivers, I’ve maintained my stance. I only sleep in structures that are equipped for room service, bubble baths and "Real Housewives" marathons. I constantly remind him: “Honey, the whole point of civilization is to not have to sleep on the ground. It’s what our forefathers fought for! Haven’t you seen 'Hamilton?'”

But this week I'm eating those words. I will happily sleep in a tent, but not for spring break or for next summer's vacation. In approximately 11 years I will be willing to sleep in a tent. Because that’s when my first child will go off to college. And no, I will not be communing with bugs and bears. I will be fraternizing with other parents who are dropping their kids off for college.

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I didn’t invent this kind of “camping.” It’s already a thing. In fact, it’s well-established in China. For the past five years colleges like Tianjin University in northern China have provided free accommodations (tents) for parents dropping off children starting their freshman year. The makeshift shelters are endearingly called “tents of love.”

And oh my god, what’s not to love?

I will have bad hair, a back ache and funky breath—but I will have no shame.

Yes, Chinese colleges have bested American education yet again. This time, it’s with their ingenious way to support families saying goodbye to their college freshman. It’s brilliant. The tents of love are set up in the school gymnasiums, giving families a moment to celebrate and prepare for the impending transition to long-distance parenting.

Like their good old American counterparts, both Chinese parents and universities are being criticized for this practice because it coddles children. Critics of the practice suggest that both parents and children should be more independent.

I disagree. I know myself—when it’s time to for my daughter to begin her life out from under my wing, I’m going to need all the love and coddling I can get. I’ll need it so bad that I’ll be willing to sleep on a dirty damn floor with 500 other helicopter parents for the chance to spend a few nights on her new turf.

Independence is coming for both us whether we like it or not, so what’s wrong with a few days of sleeping in a nylon shelter to help me let go?

It doesn’t mean that my kid’s spoiled if I unspool a tent I scored at an REI end-of-season sale. It’s a sign that I’m bonded to my child, and it’s hard to let go.

It's not like I'm planning to stay until Thanksgiving. It's a tent, not the Ritz.

I can already hear the online jeers and attacks that will descend on parents if this practice makes it to our shores. My answer to those critics is that “camping” for a few days at the place where my daughter is going to live is a 48-hour ritual designed to help ease our family into a whole new way of life. Our culture is not good at teaching us how to say goodbye in healthy ways so I’m going to borrow from the Chinese, who revere family bonds and have devised a way to support families in the throes of transition.

I will have zero shame about sleeping on the quad or in the gym. I will have bad hair, a back ache and funky breath—but I will have no shame.

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The good news is that for someone who hates camping as much as I do, a few nights in a tent will help me let go more quickly. In fact, after one night in a tent, I bet I’ll be good and ready to say goodbye to my beloved daughter and head home where I can sleep on my perfect pillow-soft mattress.

For American colleges considering this move, I hope they adopt the practice early so the process will be smooth when I show up with my daughter in 11 years. I also urge tent manufacturers to advance tent technology so that it actually feels closer to a four-star hotel than a night in the woods.

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