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House Rules over the Holidays

Scott Sager


“You have to be back by….”

I’d spoken those words every night my daughter went out in high school, but this time they caught in my throat.

Home from college for her first visit fall semester freshman year, she was heading off to meet friends. Was it absurd to give her the same old curfew? On campus, she lived beyond my supervision. She was in charge of completing homework and dealing with professors, not to mention when and where she went out, with whom, when she came home and a host of other decisions I didn’t want to think about.

How does all this newfound independence translate when a student returns for the holidays or over break? As my friend Lisa, the parent of two college students, said, “It’s a process — and it takes four years.”

Strike a balance between freedom and responsibility

When your student comes home from college, there’s potential for real conflict. Debra Crisp, Ph.D., of the Western Kentucky University Counseling and Testing Center put it this way: “For parents, especially those with first-year students, their college students are often frozen in their minds as the young people that they left on campus in August.”

I realized if I ignored the freedom my daughter had at school she would feel disrespected and we would have nothing but conflict.

Still, there were rules she needed to follow.

The first thing we talked about was the impact her actions have on those around her. For example, if she came home late on a weeknight, it affected the whole house, making the dog bark and waking everyone. Then in the morning, I was tired while she could sleep as late as she wanted.

Having lived with roommates for a year, she got this immediately. She also understood that, even with freedom, she still had responsibilities. Again, she could see this because of her experience on campus when she could choose to stay out but still had work to do and classes to attend.

When thinking about rules and consequences it’s important to keep the goal in mind — helping our students become responsible adults. Lisa gave her son and daughter more chores when they were home. She was clear about expectations and their accountability for routines, like family dinners and activities. However, she reflected, “I’m still parenting, discerning what I want them to take over and what I can still do for them.”

Some advice during this time of transition:

  • Communicate respectfully with your son or daughter; see them as an individual.
  • Negotiate the responsibilities they’ll have while home (keeping their room and living spaces picked up, helping with meals, doing their own laundry, etc.).
  • Make rules and expectations clear.
  • Help your student understand the impact of their actions on the rest of the household.
  • Frame issues at home in terms of what they’ve learned on their own at school.

My daughter helped come up with a solution to her wanting to stay out late (and my not wanting to wait up for her). She texts me when she gets in so if I wake up I can quickly see if she’s home or not and then either roll over or spring into worried-parent mode.

Special considerations over the holidays

  • Talk to them about what's planned for the holidays. Which family activities and celebrations do you expect your student to join? Keep in mind they'll also want to spend time with their friends (not to mention the days they'll choose to sleep until noon).
  • Vehicle privileges should be addressed if they want to use a family car to run errands or go out.
  • Review your family's rules about alcohol use, especially if your student is underage.

During these college years, we begin to form the adult relationships we will have with our students for the rest of their lives. It takes some doing. Slowly, my daughter and I are moving towards a new relationship…just as I start the process all over again with her younger sister. Second time around, I expect just as much stress — and just as much reward.

Scott Sager, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, is the father of two daughters, one in college and the other a recent graduate. With past lives as a social worker, preschool teacher and at-home dad, he brings a broad perspective to varied topics touching on family life, child development and education. He definitely gets how unpredictable the adventure of raising children can be and how every bit of information and each connection can help parents along the way.

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