Thanksgiving with College Students: Fantasy versus getting it right
As Thanksgiving approaches, we wanted to share the article below with you that ran in the New York Times on November 15, 2015. We hope you enjoy it.
Here is the fantasy: After months of missing our college kids we eagerly await their return for Thanksgiving. In our dreams, we spend cozy hours in the kitchen listening to them recount their experiences and marveling at the newly mature young adult who sits before us. Our kids have looked forward to these days of rest and reunion and are thrilled to come home to the embrace of their families. Food will be abundant and family time sacred.
Here is the reality: One of my college sons gets a ride home for Thanksgiving. He steps just far enough into our home to drop his dirty laundry in a large unkempt pile on the floor. He is barely across the threshold when his high school friends pull into our driveway. Before my husband and I have laid eyes on our son, he shouts “I’ll be back, see you later. It will probably be really late.” and walks back through the door he entered, let’s call it, 45 seconds earlier.
The collision course of parent expectations and college student reality is one that plays out over each holiday break and summer vacation. Battle lines are drawn soon after our kids arrive home and despite the best intentions we begin to argue. They sleep when we are awake and vice versa. They forget that family members work or go to school as they and their friends wander in and out of our house at all hours. They spread debris over every horizontal surface, leaving our homes looking much like their dorms.
Despite months of missing my college kids, it took only minutes for my frustration to surface last year. I held fast to our fantasy weekend as our real one unfolded. This year, I hope to do better.
Tom Dingman, Dean of Freshmen at Harvard College, often hears from parents who look forward to college breaks but are disappointed when the easy intimacy of their family is marred by stress and conflict. He suggests that parents prepare themselves for the changes they may find in their students and urges them to speak openly about any sources of conflict early in the vacation.
Dingman cautions parents that their kids may be “trying out of different postures, different viewpoints and that is part of developing your individuality and figuring out who you are apart from your family.” He acknowledges that these transformations can be confusing or frustrating for parents but notes that our kids “need our support and to know that we still believe in them.”
Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshman at Stanford and author of “How to Raise An Adult” explains, “We are so connected to our kids, in ways that bring us all joy but leave us expecting to be a high priority in our kid’s life. Yet they come home and have competing priorities for their time.” Lythcott-Haims suggests parents channel their “inner 18 year old” and try to remember how life felt at that age.
Lythcott-Haims also urges parents to engage in an early and deliberate conversation with their kids about making time for family. “We don’t want to guilt them into hanging out with us. We don’t want to be angry with them for not. We need to try and clearly express our need and ask them to respect it,” Lythcott-Haims explains. “We are so close to them that when they go away we experience a loss. But one of the upsides of our closeness is that our kids love us, they look at us as heroes and role models, they are not trying to disappoint us.”
At the end of Thanksgiving weekend, Dingman and his wife overheard their freshman daughter talking on the phone with her roommate making plans to meet back on campus Sunday evening. He knew something had fundamentally changed when his daughter said to her roommate, “What time are you going to get back home?” Dingman and his wife looked at each other stunned. Home was the place they had raised their daughter. Dingman recalls, “That moment encapsulated so much. She was moving on, as we wanted her to do, yet it stung.” Lythcott-Haims notes that this is a moment that will come to almost every parent with a student away in college and that it is a sign that kids have sense of belonging in their new community. She says, “When you hear that resist the urge to argue the point. Your eyes will well with tears, but just hug them and say, ‘I am so glad that place is feeling like home to you.’”
Last Thanksgiving I tangled with my sons in just the ways Dingman and Lythcott-Haims suggest are avoidable. I complained that they were never around and they told me they had not seen their high school friends since August. I noted the pile of laundry still stationed by the front door and they promised to move it. Every day, they promised. I said we were not going to leave everything that needed to be done over their break until the very last minute and make a mad dash to catch their trains back to school. But, of course we were.
I felt as though there were only a few grains of sand left to slide through the hourglass of their childhood and I grabbed this late opportunity to lecture about things clearly I had either failed to teach or they to learn.
Yet at some point in the middle of the long weekend, perhaps softened up by turkey, stuffing and family time, it all began to look a bit different to me. Two of my sons were kicking a soccer ball in their bedroom and shattered one of their bedroom lamps. They fell all over themselves to apologize and acknowledge that I had mentioned the rule banning indoor sports a thousand times. I gathered up the broken pieces, marched out to the garbage and flung them in. And then I paused for a moment.
A college kid who runs off with his high school friends has formed real enduring relationships. My kids slept late because they were young and had worked hard (and I suspect played hard) during the semester. They were truly happy to be home with their parents and younger brother and this left me beyond grateful.
Living with them was chaos, but hadn’t it always been? I had been a parent for nearly 20 years. If I learned only one thing it was to pick my battles. Yet here I was haranguing the two people I missed most in the world. Sure, I had the right to ask of from them the same things I would ask of any adult staying in my home. But they weren’t just any adults and this would be, hopefully, one of hundreds of visits they would make to this home. We had time to get it right.
For me, the “my house, my rules” axiom doesn’t work, because I wanted this to be, now and forever, our house.
I want our family home to always be just that, all of our home. I want to it be a stress-free zone in a stressful world, a place they look forward to returning to. And if I open my mouth, if I give voice to some of my thoughts (is it possible that you are 19 years old and have not yet learned to wipe a kitchen counter?) then it will be anything but that. My mistake was in viewing this visit as the lingering days of their childhood. Instead, this was the first moments of adulthood.
We were taking the initial unsteady steps to establish the most enduring relationship I would have with each of them, that between two adults. In time we would learn to compromise. I would converse and reason with them, but I would stop making demands. I wasn’t sure if I could have an adult relationship with someone who ate bagel bites at 2:00 am and left the wrappers on the floor next to his bed, but I was going to try.
This trip marked the beginning of a new stage, the one where they have someplace else to live, the one where being home is a choice. Our life as a family, my job as a parent, would go on. But the kind of parenting where I lay down the rules they are expected to follow, that was over.