"So how was your semester break," I asked? He stared at me with a smirk and said, "Well, it started off OK, but by the end of break, I was ready to get back to school. I've got my own thing going here and I needed to get back to it."
"Your own thing," I questioned? "Yeah, you know, college and stuff. I'm not in high school anymore. I don't live at home anymore. It's different now."
Different indeed! I work in higher education with college students, and this conversation has been replicated about a thousand times in my professional career, after every break in the academic calendar. This conversation is especially prevalent with college freshmen. Leaving home to go to college in August was a big adjustment for them personally, mentally, intellectually, spiritually, and they have begun to undergo changes in their lives. The point that I believe they begin to really feel those changes, and that those changes become most evident to others (meaning their parents) is when they return home, for the first real extended period of time since starting college, at the end of the first semester or trimester. The exodus from college campuses around the country begins shortly this year. College students everywhere are repacking their suitcases or cars and traveling back to their home. As parents of college students you should understand one important thing: Your son or daughter is different now, and the break period can be a time of positive resistance during which you see those changes becoming evident.
I am not the father of a college-age son or daughter, but throughout the school year I serve as a mentor, servant, confidant, counselor, role model, teacher and student of and at times pseudo parent for the 1,000+ I work with and serve every day of my professional career. I hear the tales of woe from both student and parent. "I can't believe I had a curfew still." "Why don't they want to be with the family? It's a tradition." "I had to shuttle my little sister to the mall and back all the time." "Has texting taken over their life when they went away to school?" "Why do they eat so much? Aren't you feeding them there?" "Why can't I sleep in until 10 a.m.? I do it here all the time?" These statements, these questions, the challenges and successes of growth, are all part of the college experience that neither one of you, neither your child nor you as a father, were told about during the orientation days back in August, but they are a reality.
I offer to you, fathers of college-age students (especially if this is your first child in college) some humble suggestions to help make the break at home a bit easier:
Communicate expectations with your son or daughter when they return home and be willing to compromise and collaborate with them on expectations. Keep this in mind: While away from home, they have begun to develop autonomy and independence in ways different from when they were living at home with you. That is in fact a positive thing. At the same time, at college, especially if they live on campus, we teach your son or daughter about the responsibility of adhering to the rule of the community they live in as a part of positive citizenship. Your home is such a community for the next few weeks, so it can be a good lesson for them to understand that sometimes when you change your community, you need to recognize and adapt to changing expectations and rules. This lesson is micro-level compared to say, moving to another country, but your home now seems like "another country" to your son or daughter in some ways.
Keep in mind that over the past few months, they have developed new and exciting relationships, new interests, and perhaps, confidence, courage and adventure. They may want to travel over break to see old or new friends. They may need to touch base with friends on Skype, text or cellphones. These are important relationships to them, and it may, at times, take them away from family planned events or traditions. Remember when they were 4 years old and refused to go somewhere? And as a parent you say, "OK. Stay. See you later” and then you walk out of their room and sit on the couch in the living room so they'll come out? Well, they may not come out now. Don't take that personally, but understand that they are also struggling now with how they relate to their parents. Their new independence puts that previous relationship in flux, and they are trying to test out boundaries of the new relationship and maintain their newfound identity and independence. Talk to them in advance about things that you really want to see them be a part of. They are still a significant part of the family, but also be willing to have compromise for times they need to do their own thing.
While your son or daughter was away at college, new routines were developed. They have a new way of approaching time and their daily life. This can be a difficult adjustment for both you and them when they are taken out of the college environment and returned to home, a place where they had different routines. They might not eat breakfast anymore, unless you count Starbucks Cup o' Joe as a full meal. They may suddenly not seem to be as good at cleaning up or picking up after themselves, and why are they checking Facebook every five minutes? You will see changes, but remember, they are still your son or daughter and they still need that relationship. Allow them the freedom at home to have their own space and compromise with them a bit — that's the space to leave your clothes on the bed, chair or floor — not the shared space. This is the same rule they have at college.
Regardless of if they are at home or college, respect always applies. That does not change and if, for example, they have developed a new vernacular since leaving home and you hear a few "f-bombs" here or there, remind them of the need for respect. Your relationship with them now is built on respect. No longer is it about authority or control.
Lastly, most importantly, and research on college students tells us this, the relationship they have with their parental figures is still one of the most important relationships they have. That remains the case in college. In spite of growing pains, disagreements or challenges that might arise, keep in mind, they have desired to get back home for likely the past few weeks. They've been dreaming about a home cooked meal. They've wanted to sit at the kitchen table over some iced tea and talk about what they’ve learned, or stay up late with the family playing Scrabble again. They've been waiting to see what it will be like sleeping in their own bed again, walking around the ol' neighborhood, perhaps even coming back to high school and seeing a home basketball game in the gym. And while they are without a doubt different than they were when you dropped them off or sent them on their way four months ago, and while the relationship is different, it is not erased. It has simply adjusted. You’re place in their life doesn't adjust. They need you still and they want you to be there.
Oh, I should explain how the beginning conversation ends. So after he says "it's different now," I respond, "Yeah, but is better or worse different?"
"I’m not really sure, at times it's better, at times it feels worse, but home's the same. I'm different."
"Sure," I calmly reply and pause.
We kind of stand there for a second, and then he said, "But it was sure nice being home and seeing my family. That never changes."
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