When my younger son returned to college after his winter break, he ran smack into a Midwestern snowstorm. His connecting flight in Chicago was cancelled and his checked bag was nowhere to be found.

As he was dealing with these inconveniences, I was on a tennis court in warm, sunny Newport Beach, blissfully ignorant of his circumstances. By the time I saw his text messages and called him, he had already arranged to take a bus to his college town. Several hours later, he was dropped off across from his dorm — tired, cold and a little grumpy, but otherwise fine. His missing bag arrived the next day.

As our children progress through their school years, we parents place a high priority on the quality of education they receive. But so much of what they learn — perhaps the most important part — doesn't necessarily happen inside a classroom. It's the accumulation of experiences, decision making and problem solving that constitute the School of Life, where "Figuring Stuff Out 101" is required coursework.

This education begins at birth, and is marked thereafter by each accomplishment large and small: potty-training success, letting go of a parent's hand on the first day of school, the first sleep-over, first formal dance and so on.

I'll never forget a particular time not long after my older son first received his driver's license when he went out to buy supplies for a school project at a store in Costa Mesa. More than an hour later he called after pulling his car to the side of the road.

"I took a wrong turn," he said. "I think I'm in L.A."

He wasn't in Los Angeles, but he was a long way from Costa Mesa. Eventually, though, with little help from my end, he kept his cool, got his bearings and found his way.

This long transition to adulthood and full-fledged independence hits warp speed when we send our kids off to college, at which point many parents wonder how their sons and daughters will ever survive on their own. Will they get out of bed and make it to class on time? Will they eat right? Will they lose their keys? (Answers: Not always, no, and probably more than once.)

But somehow, the great majority of these not-quite-adults seem to get by, maybe not always in the fashion that Mom and Dad would prefer, but they do manage. And every time they face a new situation or challenge and figure it out, they grow just a little, or even a lot.

When my older son was about to start college, I received tons of advice from other parents who had walked that road before me. Send care packages, I was told. Don't call your child, let him call you. Buy extra sheets and towels, and invest in under-the-bed storage containers.

I soaked it all in. Some of the advice I ignored, some I found helpful, but one piece of wisdom imparted by another mom stuck with me above all. When her daughters had a dilemma or difficulty making a decision, her response was always, "So what are you going to do about it?"

Most of the time, she said, that's all the cue they'd need to work out a logical next step.

That's not to say that sometimes our kids' choices aren't a little scary, and that's when we parents must step in. Keeping them safe and healthy always comes first.

And sometimes they actually want our guidance and opinions, even if they find it hard to ask. All kids are different, and parents usually recognize the subtle signs that reveal when their own are in need of support, whether it's to comfort a fragile young heart after a breakup, talk through a complicated choice, or offer unwavering encouragement when goals prove elusive.

But sometimes the best course is to hold ourselves back from judgment or intervention, even when our kids' behavior is a trifle ill-considered.

I've heard of some college kids who stretch the time between trips to the laundry by turning their dirty underwear inside out and wearing them again. It's creative, I admit — but really, yuck. By contrast, my college student son's habit of wearing the same pair of pants every day for a week or two before tossing them in the to-be-washed pile doesn't seem so bad, so I bite my tongue and trust that he'll soon develop a greater appreciation of the benefits of clean clothes.

For the most part, his ability to handle himself in an unfamiliar environment far from home appears to be progressing well.

He just called: The weather is miserable, he said. He signed up for too many classes because he wasn't sure which he really wanted to take. Now he needs to decide which class to drop, but he's still not sure. But don't worry, he told me. He's bundling up in the big freeze, he's learned how to time the dash from his dorm to a heated bus, and he'll get his schedule finalized by the deadline.

My son is figuring his life out, I tell myself. I suppose, in my own way, so am I.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.