House rules over the holidays

House rules over the holidays

If your kitchen looks like this one when your college student is home, you may have landed on the wrong website!

For the rest of us, we’ve updated Scott’s classic article because it turns out it’s timeless — originally written for Thanksgiving Break, but possibly even more applicable to interterm and summer vacations when students are home for longer stretches of time. Comparing notes with our fellow parents, we hear about:

  • Hallways and living rooms taken over by piles of luggage, boxes, bikes, etc.
  • Residence hall habits following students home (laundry all over the floor? Qui, moi?)
  • Confusion about meals (who’s cooking what and when and for whom)
  • Off-kilter daily (and nightly) routines

If this sounds like your family over holidays and breaks, read on!

“You have to be back by….”

My daughter, just home from college for her first visit fall semester freshman year, was heading off to meet friends. I’d spoken those words every night she went out in high school but, this time, they caught in my throat.

Was it absurd to give her the same old curfew? At school, she lived beyond my supervision. She was in charge of completing homework, 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, says, “It’s a process and it takes four years.”

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 puts 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.”

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.

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 very 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 reflects, “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.
      • 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.

Slowly, we’re 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

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. Time bonding with the family Beagle offers some grounding in the chaos he calls family life.

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  • This is a wonderful article which I have copied and sent to my daughter. she feels calmer if she is prepared ahead of time and knows what to expect. these suggestions are just thing to give her.

  • Thank you for writing this awesome article. I'm a long time reader but I've never been compelled to leave a comment. I subscribed to your blog and shared this on my Facebook. Thanks again for a great article!