Last week I dropped my youngest off at college.

On the ride down, we chatted about the summer, talked about plans for the fall and wondered what her new roommates would be like. I reminded her that time management would take on a whole new meaning, and she reminded me that she was ready for that responsibility. Excited and ready to take it all on — just as I had hoped she would be.

The long, comparatively quiet drive home provided lots of time for reflection. What immediately came clear to me is that the journey to bring my daughter to college didn’t begin with packing the car the day before, or with college applications her senior year of high school, or even with college visits her junior year.

In truth, it pretty much started at birth — if not, arguably, before.

As much as kids, especially teens, try to act like it’s not the case, no one is a bigger or more important influence than their parents. What we say and do matters — across a whole host of issues.

Little things can make a big difference: A story at bedtime every night when they are little, a trip to Dunkin Donuts on the way to drop them off at high school, showing up for their games and concerts and plays.

I remember an epiphany I had when my kids were in middle school: They always wanted to know when I was going to be around but didn’t necessarily want to do something with me. Then I realized that they just plain felt better knowing I was there if they needed something.

In the quick, excited calls home in these first few days on her new campus, I can feel my daughter testing her freedom and her responsibility — being clearly in the driver’s seat, but wanting to look across at me to make sure she’s doing it right.

As parents, we do so many things to support our children to help them prepare for the future. In our society, graduation from high school is not just a milestone, it is a turning point, and getting our kids ready for that moment is an important responsibility as parents. Much of what we do along the way is to prepare them, and us, for that moment.

In our house, that meant a lot of talk about college and future career possibilities. Some of these moments are obvious and geared towards older kids: visiting campuses, exploring careers. Some are things for when they are younger: talking about work, taking them to a basketball game on a local campus.

And some, of course, are for any age: Starting a conversation with, “When you go to college,” saving for college (and asking them to save, too), and modeling good citizenship by volunteering in your community.

Why does it matter if they continue their education after high school? Lot of folks, myself included, will cite the statistics: $1 million more in lifetime earnings for those with a college degree compared with those with a high school diploma; nearly 80 percent of Maine jobs are middle or high skill and require some postsecondary education or training. And, of course, “college” doesn’t just mean a four-year degree on a residential campus. It includes associate’s degrees and certificates, trade school and training programs.

But most parents are motivated by something much more fundamental: wanting their kids to have a happy and “successful” future, however that might be defined, and whatever that may look like.

Kids want the same things: A chance to chart their own path, to be their own person, to be in charge of their own destiny.

In a survey of Maine students and parents by the Maine Compact for Higher Education about 10 years ago, both groups defined “readiness” as being broader than college: ready for life, ready for work, ready for society.

Most saw education after high school as a necessity. Here’s the value proposition that most resonated: Students who graduate “ready” have the power to define their own future.  

They saw having options as being more important than making financial headway.

Education after high school may or may not be absolutely necessary, but it sure keeps open a lot more doors than it closes. Whether your child is getting ready to start kindergarten or college, there’s a lot that we as parents can do to help them get ready for a future of possibilities.

Colleen Quint is the parent of three children and president and CEO of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation, a non-profit organization that awards a $500 Alfond Grant to every baby born a Maine resident. To date, the program has awarded more than $25 million to over 50,000 Maine children in support of their future education.