While most parents of college-age students are excited to have their kids home by now, many of them — about a month into their summer breaks — are counting down the days until the kids are back in school.
“The family home is not a frat house. There need to be guidelines in place for everyone,” said one expert.
Jeffrey Leiken’s not surprised. He hears it all the time.
“It’s pretty close to a universal issue,” said Leiken, CEO of Evolution Mentoring International in the San Francisco Bay Area and author of the book, “Adolescence is Not a Disease: Beyond Drinking, Drugs and Dangerous Friends — The Journey to Adulthood.”
From leaving their clothes everywhere, to making a mess in the kitchen, to staying out until the wee hours (or all night) without letting anyone know their whereabouts, college-age sons and daughters — so used to their independence at school by now — have a way of disrupting the order and organization of a family’s life, especially if there are still younger children at home who need that structure.
And that’s just from the parents’ perspective — the young adults aren’t thrilled with the arrangement either. College students who so prize their independence often face rules, curfews, and chores again that prompt uncomfortable flashbacks to their high school years.
“Why did I even come home?” one young man asked Leiken after completing his freshman year. “These people are driving me crazy! I just want to leave and go back to school.”
At least the feeling’s mutual.
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But it doesn’t have to be — as long as communication and compromise are part of the relationship.
“Going from parenting a teenager to parenting a person who is on the threshold of becoming an adult is such a fundamental paradigm shift,” Leiken noted. “Parents have to understand that their son or daughter has gone through an amazing period of growth — especially during the first year at school. At the end of that year, they’re not the same people they were at the beginning. This is no longer the kid struggling with who they’re going to sit with at lunch. This is the kid who’s accomplished something major.”
It’s a new relationship for sure: When kids are very young and learning to ride a bicycle, for example, it’s pretty easy for a parent to know when the child can coast on his or her own and they can let go. Not all life milestones are as obvious, Leiken said. “A lot of times parents miss the cues that their older child is developing to the next stage. It’s certainly not something that’s readily taught and modeled.”
“In negotiation, there’s power. When the parent says, ‘This is how this is going to be,’ then the kid resents it.”
These insights can be helpful for parents to whom all of this sounds very familiar.
Show mutual respect.
Parenting a college-aged kid requires a lot of give and take. “College-aged kids are used to having a lot of freedom, so you can’t go back to the same rules that were in place in high school. You’re going to bring up a lot of resentment if you do,” Leiken said. “Yet kids have to remember that parents matter, too. Our house is not a frat house. There need to be guidelines in place for everyone.”
It’s hard to reinstate a curfew after someone’s been living on their own for nine months. But college-age kids and their parents do have to be realistic and smart. Set the expectations early. “We don’t mind if you want to go out at night, but it’s not OK to have a bunch of people over, getting drunk in the garage,” Leiken said.
Naturally, parents are excited to spend some time with their kids. But these kids have friends they want to see and other things they want to do at home, too. So a family dinner every night is probably not going to happen. But it’s OK to ask for a reasonable alternative, Leiken advised. “Once a week, we’re going to go out to lunch together, or we’re going to spend Sundays together.”
Understand that compromise is key.
“In negotiation, there’s power. When the parent says, ‘This is how this is going to be,’ then the kid resents it. Parents have to understand that their child is not who they were when they left. As hard is it might be to admit it, you can’t think of your daughter as ‘Daddy’s little girl’ anymore, or your son as ‘your little boy.’ The more a parent can update their vision of their child and have a relationship with someone who is 19 or 20 instead of 13 or 14, the better.”
Know that it’s not too late.
The best time to have a conversation like this, of course, is before your son or daughter returns home for the summer, Leiken said. But it’s not too late to do it now, either. “It will get better. But it takes work, just like any relationship.”
And if all else fails — classes start again at the end of August or the beginning of September.
It’s OK for parents to look forward to that. It’s an evolving relationship. The old parenting adage from the ups and downs of the baby and toddler years applies here as well: This stage, too, shall pass.