Many parents of college students eagerly anticipate the breaks when their children return home. They can’t wait to connect through local excursions and late-night conversations.
Then reality hits. A couple of days into the visit, returning students haven’t left their bedrooms or looked up from their phones, leaving parents feeling confused, hurt, or even worried.
Rather than leading with unrealistic expectations or churning with dread at potential conflict, Doug Schaupp, national director of evangelism for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, encourages parents, grandparents, and anyone who loves college students to develop a game plan of connection that revolves around two words: elegant simplicity.
Gen Z is defined by how tech-savvy, global-minded, and culturally aware they are, but it’s important to remember that they value authenticity above almost everything else. Parents don’t need a complex formula in order to create genuine connections. They just need a game plan—one that helps them open the door to great dialogue and meaningful conversation about everything from faith to finances.
Consider these elegantly simple suggestions from Schaupp and his team at InterVarsity.
Share That NYT Article.
Gen Z students value what is concrete. They grew up with candid conversations about mental health, news stories about racial tensions and global warming, and a keen awareness of cultural divides. So, instead of lingering in hypotheticals and abstract topics, try texting them the link to an article, TED Talk, or podcast episode with a brief message of what you found most interesting.
Gen Z craves open dialogue and clear communication. Starting a conversation about specific things that matter to them shows them you are aware and care deeply about helping them navigate their world.
Tip: The link you share doesn’t have to be overly serious—send things that bring you joy, inspire hope, or cultivate empathy. Stories that highlight the true, admirable, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8) can provide you and your college student with opportunities to talk about God’s work in the world.
Respect Their Schedule.
When it comes to spending time with your college student, it’s easy to overschedule out of a desire to create memories and make up for lost time. However, they were raised in an era where most kids were expected to play both an instrument and a sport, all while being citizen activists with good grades. Gen Z prioritizes rest in a way older generations do not.
Your college student’s break is likely a reset to their busy lives. Leaving space for them to breathe is crucial to enjoying your limited time together. Christ reflects this attitude in his own ministry and care for his disciples as he sent them out to share the good news then called them away to rest (Mark 6:31-32).
Tip: Have a continuous conversation about expectations. What does your student have planned while they are home? What are you hoping for? As these change, let each other know.
Be the Leader They Need.
Gen Z has access to more knowledge than any prior generation, and they feel much more equipped to act on that knowledge—if they have a trusted guide. But these young people aren’t looking for another life hack from a stranger on social media. Instead, Angelo Blancaflor, communications manager of evangelism initiatives at InterVarsity, encourages parents to make themselves available as coaches or mentors.
Often this can be done by offering help with hard skills, like cooking or car maintenance. As you are working alongside each other, take advantage of this opportunity to share and listen. Cultivate a place of emotional safety that allows your college student to express their thoughts or ask questions about faith.
Tip: Encourage their growth. Your child may not be so little anymore, but you can still be the loudest, most trustworthy voice in their lives.
Invest in What Matters.
Around 75 percent of Gen Z students say that thinking about finances causes them stress. Research shows that they worry about money being a determining factor in whether or not they can pursue educational and vocational opportunities. Gen Z is concerned about balancing their personal happiness against paying bills and remaining generous.
Candidly discussing debt, investments, and financial goals will help your college student feel better prepared for the future. You might ask if they want to work together on a budget that prioritizes biblical principles like wisdom and charity. You can talk about what it looks like to save, spend, and share in times of plenty and scarcity. During these conversations, if you can listen to and validate your student’s experiences with money, you’ll contribute to their sense of security.
Tip: Be open about your own relationship with money and the financial strategies you have used (or abandoned) along the way.
Feed Their Curiosity and Spiritual Growth.
Despite the fact that Gen Z has grown up with ongoing coverage of church scandals and culturally shifting views of institutions, they are considered a spiritually open generation.
In this unique season of life with your student, honoring that openness is essential. Your young adult may have encountered new perspectives or beliefs at school, or they may be reconsidering certain points of theology or the role of faith in their life. Whether you agree with your student’s opinions or not, you have the opportunity to feed their curiosity and answer their questions. When having these discussions about faith, ask if they would like your thoughts or if they would prefer you to listen.
Ministry experts say that college students are responding positively to prayer and conversations about the Holy Spirit. Knowing this, you might ask if your child would like to pray together about the remainder of the semester, their friend group, or their future plans.
Tip: Share a story about the way prayer or another spiritual practice has impacted your life.
Download “Create Space for Gen Z to Thrive.”
The way that Gen Z communicates, sees the world, and thinks about their futures differs dramatically from the approach of their parents and grandparents—and this includes their relationship to faith!
In a new guide, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national campus ministry found on over 700 campuses, provides insight into today’s college students and offers four tips for fostering spiritual conversations with this next generation.
Take heart: Gen Z students are spiritually curious, hungry for mentorship, and eager for practical steps to grow in their faith. When you model vulnerability and openness, they often respond in kind. Ready to meet them where they are? Download “Create Space for Gen Z to Thrive” for free.