Congratulations. You survived the first semester of college! You made it through the first two weeks of sitting in your son’s empty bedroom with a box of tissues, wondering how the time flew by so quickly and how that little boy you used to rock to sleep in this room grew up and moved into a dorm three states away. Pat yourself on the back for not being the stalker parent who calls three times a day and instead settling for creeping on his Facebook page and watching for Twitter updates! You’ve been marking off the days on the calendar until Christmas break, planning all sorts of family activities—a whole month of family togetherness! It’s going to be just like old times!
Before you carve those plans in stone, take a few minutes to read through some of the common mistakes parents of college students make and consider how you might avoid them:
Mistake #1: Assuming he will want to do… anything
Most likely your son spent the last two weeks in a sleepless blur, sustained by coffee, energy drinks, and cold pizza. If he’s a decent, conscientious student he hunkered down in the library or his dorm room writing papers and studying for finals until all hours of the night.
On top of that, he attended Christmas parties and tied up loose ends with his extracurricular activities and athletic commitments and squeezed in some last -minute quality time with his new “family” at school. When he arrives home with his duffel bag full of rancid laundry, don’t be surprised if he shows up on the verge of a complete crash or even a meltdown. He may be an emotional wreck from all the pent-up stress he’s been experiencing or he may simply be dog-tired and ready to sleep for three days straight. As a parent, if you can anticipate this possibility and allow some time for your student to unwind and recharge, everyone will be happier and the holidays will be much more pleasant. Manage your expectations and be sensitive to his feelings and energy level. If you expect your child to walk in the door and immediately jump into the flurry of family activities, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment and adding to the family stress level during the holidays. It’s best to maintain a flexible schedule, at least for the first few days of Christmas break.
Mistake #2: Expecting pre-college rules to apply
Prior to starting college in the fall, your son lived under your roof, by your rules. The minute you dropped him off at the dorm, everything changed. He arrived in a world where he made most of his own decisions about everything from how late to stay out (or even whether to come home at all), to whether to show up for class, to what to eat for lunch. If he wanted to survive on a diet of nothing but croutons and Dr. Pepper, no one would stop him. But in your mind, he’s still the same kid you dropped off in August; he still needs rules and your guidance to make good decisions. This is a recipe for conflict and it’s best to head it off at the pass.
After he sleeps off the exhaustion of finals week, you may want to initiate a conversation that includes a re-negotiation of the house rules. As the parents (and the owners of the proverbial roof over his head), you still maintain the right to say what goes on in your home. You most likely still support your child financially, and even if you’re not directly paying for school, you probably still pay for things like car and medical insurance, living expenses, and spending money—not to mention letting him share space in your home over Christmas break. But just because you have the right to impose rules doesn’t mean that it is wise to do so.
In our family, although we never felt the need for a curfew, we did ask our kids to call home if they expected to be out past 11:00. Our older son doesn’t mind following this same guideline when he come home for break. Because we enjoy a good relationship and open communication, he understands that rather than his parents imposing a rule on him, he chooses to call as a way to be considerate of our feelings. Ideally, your son or daughter knows and respects your family’s values and, with good communication during the first few days of Christmas break, you can avoid conflicts about rules and enjoy your time together. Parenting involves a gradual process of teaching responsibility and letting go. Discuss expectations and guidelines in a mature and “adult” manner that reflects the changing nature of your relationship while at the same time respecting your home and your family values.
Mistake #3: Expecting his undivided attention
While you worked hard to prepare his room, bake his favorite treats, and plan all the fun things you will do together during Christmas break, you may need to face the reality that he has a completely different agenda. He may want to reconnect with high school friends, hang out with his college friends who live in the area, or take a road trip to visit friends in another state.
Although you naturally want to spend every minute with your son, recognize that you’re at a transitional stage in your relationship. He’s just a few years away from living independently and perhaps starting a family of his own. Whether you’re ready for it or not, from now on he will spend the vast majority of his time away from his family. If you’ve done your job right, he will be an independent adult in a few years and won’t be camped out in your basement after graduation. This is the goal, right? Perhaps you can look at these breaks as a trial run for the holidays in the not-so-distant future when you will have to share him with his future spouse and (gulp!) the future in-laws.
Again, it’s best to address this at the outset of the break. Discuss which family events and traditions you consider to be most important and which are non-negotiable and decide together how you will navigate the holiday schedule. You may be willing to sacrifice the family cookie baking day but feel that the Christmas Eve service at church and the family Christmas party are non-negotiable. Be clear about your expectations and be willing to let go of an activity (or two) that isn’t as important to you. Also, at the outset of the holiday season, find out which family traditions he loves and wants to participate in. How will he feel if you cut down the family Christmas tree without him? Would you be willing to postpone it a week or two so he can participate? You may be surprised to find out that the kid who complained about your family traditions every year voices strong objections to being left out of them.
Mistake #4: Interrogating him about his life at school
Your instinct will probably be to sit your son down at the kitchen table, ply him with Christmas cookies, and ask him to recount every minute you’ve missed since fall semester commenced. First, go back and read Mistake #1. Some kids will come home and want to talk non-stop for a week. Others may need more time to process the life-altering events of the last few months, so you may need to be patient and wait for the stories to trickle out gradually. I’ve learned to expect both extremes and everything in between and to make the most of the time we have together, knowing that it is fleeting.
Like most freshmen at Hillsdale College, Ryan experienced a brutal first semester (unofficial school motto: “Where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1844”). His first Christmas break, our normally verbose son didn’t want to talk about school. At all. He needed to get away from it and think about other things for a few weeks. As his mother, I found it very difficult to step back and allow him that space — and I admit, I didn’t do a great job of it, causing both of us a lot of unnecessary frustration. Learning to wait for the right time and mood has resulted in wonderful deep, mature conversations with my son when he comes home now. Your son will appreciate your willingness to lecture less and listen more at this point in his life—on his terms. Resist the urge to try to solve every problem. If you did your job right, he’ll ask for your advice when he really needs it. (And contrary to what your finely honed Spidey-Mom sense is telling you, it won’t be for every minor bump in his road.)
Mistake #5: Expecting him to resume his former role in the family
When our son left for college, we noticed a sudden “chore void” in the house. For example, our sons took turns cleaning up after dinner. When Ryan left, someone needed to fill his spot in the dinner rotation, along with the rest of his regular chores. The prospect of taking the trash out or feeding the dogs didn’t particularly appeal to me, so we immediately went into negotiations with our younger son, Kyle.
I won’t disclose all the details, but let’s just say that it was only slightly less complicated than the current fiscal cliff negotiations in D.C. and involved a cell phone. The arrangement worked until Ryan arrived home for Christmas break, with Kyle envisioning Ryan resuming his spot in the rotation—sort of an Emeritus Chore Fellow.
Ryan, on the other hand, envisioned coming home and sleeping for 30 days straight and doing nothing more difficult than lifting a forkful of home-cooked food to his lips (and then leaving the fork for someone else to clean up). The disconnect in their visions led to conflicts that our family needed to navigate and negotiate. There will also be issues if kids have to share a bedroom or a bathroom and various other “turf war” issues (is this just a boy thing?). The returning college students live in a world of limbo between being a fully integrated family member (with all its responsibilities) and a house guest, and each family will need to decide how that works within their individual family DNA. If you can anticipate these conflicts and initiate conversations with your kids individually and together, you should be able to come up with reasonable solutions that everyone can live with.
Most of the problems associated with kids coming home from college can be alleviated by parents (and kids) adjusting their expectations and a by a willingness on everyone’s part to be flexible. Our college kids hover in that odd suspended animation between childhood and adulthood. They try to pull in one direction and our natural instinct is to pull them home. Good communication and a balance between freedom and family priorities will help to make Christmas break a pleasant respite from the excitement (and stress) of college life for them and a special time for parents to celebrate and embrace the adults they are becoming.
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