Family Rules of Engagement For When Your College Freshman Visits During Holidays
If your child headed off to college for the first time a few months ago, this post is for you. And if you are anticipating having a child head off to college soon, heck, this post is for you, too.
I’m pretty lucky in that my oldest picked a school which is (in my humble opinion) the perfect distance from home: it’s about a 90-minute drive, which means she’s not popping in for dinner or anything, but if she wants to come home for the weekend it’s not a hard thing to do. So it’s not as though I haven’t seen her this semester. If your kid is farther from home, it’s possible that Thanksgiving Break will be your first big chunk of time together since they left, and even for us, this will be our longest stretch since the semester began. Either way, this is likely the first time your “hey I’m totally off living as an independent adult” is reentering your home for more than a couple of days. If nothing else, this is a good trial-run for Winter Break.
Allow me to offer up some General Rules of Engagement for next week which will (hopefully) promote calm family togetherness and avoid unnecessary friction:
We’ve been through a dozen different iterations of handling chores in our house (everything from lists to requests to rotation to regular assignments), and in the last few years it’s settled in a middle ground of “these are your assignments each week, and here are the things I may ask you to do at any given time.” I feel pretty confident telling you that asking your college freshman to do any sort of chore while they view themselves as being home on “vacation” is going to go over like a lead balloon. You’re viewing them as a regular, contributing member of the household; they’re viewing it as disruption of their rare responsibility-free time. There’s middle ground to be found, for sure, but I’d err on the side of avoiding conflict when it comes to a short(ish) break like this one. A kid home for a month over the holidays can suck it up and clean the bathroom. A kid home for under a week maybe gets a pass (but they should still be mocked if they seem to have forgotten how to put their dishes in the dishwasher).
College Class Talk
Resist the temptation to take this time to really grill your freshman about how classes are going. Demonstrate interest, yes. Ask about what’s going well/what’s interesting, sure. Demand to know how their grades are shaping up or constantly wonder aloud why they don’t seem to be doing any studying? A thousand times No. If they’ve already decided to switch majors (surprise! upwards of half of college freshmen will have, by now), listen with an open mind and let them use you as a sounding board. Only offer your opinion if asked.
If your kid is coming home next week and you haven’t already done this, open an invitation for them to bring home any and all friends who either live too far from their homes to make the trip back or who maybe don’t want to go home for whatever reason. Be clear that whomever, whenever, you are happy to host, no questions asked. (Then follow through. That means no “He/she’s cute, honey!” or “Tell me again how you know them…?”) Whether or not your kid brings a guest or two, again, you want to be listening to what they have to say about their relationships rather than grilling them.
Speaking of which: your freshman may be coming home and planning on spending a lot of time with friends and not so much time with you. Know what? That’s okay. Avoid potential arguments by being clear, up-front, about your expectations for this time (and be reasonable). “Thanksgiving dinner will be at this time, and I would like you here for that. If you’re willing to spend some time to help the day before, that’d be great.” Or maybe “I would love to do something with all of us/just the two of us over the weekend before you go back. Can we set something up?” You have to decide how to handle it, but the more freedom you give them to make their own plans, the more agreeable they’re likely to be about the stuff you really would like them to do.
My kids are hardly party animals, so the curfews I’ve imposed in high school are something of a formality. I loosened the reins the summer after graduation, but still sort of played the “my house, my rules” card. For me, the only logical position at this point is “You know I worry if you’re not home when I think you will be. Can you tell me when you plan to be back, or let me know if something changes?” That may not be your position, but perhaps you—like me—need a little reminder that at school, our kids are masters of their own schedules. The more we can resist the urge to take that away, the happier everyone will be.
Eating dinner together as a family is honestly my favorite part of having a family, but again, trying to force a kid who’s been away to slip right back into old expectations could be a recipe for disaster. I’ll continue my usual approach as regards preparing meals, and I’ll let my freshman know I hope she’ll join us, but if she makes other plans or turns up her nose at what’s offered, I will do my best to shrug and move on. What I won’t do is make another meal later because she’s “so hungry” but also “so tired,” nor will I succumb to the whole “Oh well if you’re not going to make anything I’ll just eat Pop-Tarts” gambit, but that’s okay, too. She’s been feeding herself for months. I trust she’ll figure it out.
Sleeping and noise
The first couple of times my daughter came home from college, I was alarmed by the sheer number of hours she spent sleeping. I mean, she’s never been a morning person, but I’m talking about going upstairs with a mirror to check her breathing because it’s nearly dinnertime and she’s still in bed. This is, I’m told, pretty typical. Again: outline expectations (the limited and totally reasonable ones you have) and then step away. I expect that when my husband and I head to bed at our perfectly reasonable/old-person turn-in time that if my adult child is still awake, she will be courteous and not make so much noise that it keeps us up. On the other hand, while I’m not going to run a blender in her bedroom, I am also not going to refrain from grinding coffee beans in the kitchen the next morning when we’re up in time for work, just because she’s only been asleep for an hour. Unfair? Sorry, those who pay the mortgage get to set those rules.
Go ahead and spoil them a little
Rules and courtesy and hands-off approach aside, this is still your baby whom you’ve probably missed quite a bit. It’s okay to indulge. Do something super fun together or go shopping for “wants” rather than “needs” or stock up on their favorite goodies or whatever is the right love language for you and your kid. Not everything has to be a learning experience or a good habit. Sometimes, you just need to seize an opportunity to smother your kid in love just because you can. And sometimes the dishes need to wait while you join your kid for a Netflix binge. Sure, you’re just sitting there together, but you’re sitting there together.
(Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for my daughter to call me and tell me what’s wrong with this list. Circle of life, man.)
Photo source: Depositphotos/belchonock