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Family Life

New House Rules for Winter Break 2020


Are you getting excited (and, in 2020, possibly nervous) for your college student to arrive home for the extended winter break? 

Maybe they're already ensconced in their childhood bedroom.

It's a happy season for families, but it can also be tense because it’s time to talk over the house rules that will help everyone adjust to living under one roof again.

The "holiday house rules" conversation looks different this year.

The pandemic complicates this like everything else. Chores, family dinners and curfew are still up for debate but now — with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths at record levels nationwide — health and safety have jumped to the top of the list.

Since everyone in the family will need to be straightforward about the risks they're willing to take, it’s more important than ever to practice open communication and set clear expectations.

An initial conversation or two will smooth your path during the early weeks of winter break and lay a foundation for making it through January.

We suggest separating things into two main buckets.

1. Decide as a Family What Rules Are Non-Negotiable

This will look different from family to family, especially with respect to comfort levels around if/when/how people socialize outside the household. 

Maybe your family is okay with socializing with a pandemic friend pod, outdoors if possible or with masks and physical distancing. 

It's also possible that a few family members aren't comfortable with anybody socializing at all, while the other side feels it's crucial to their mental health to see friends in person.

Comfort levels may change if your family intends to visit higher risk loved ones like grandparents.

Some parents may be surprised to find that their student is more cautious than they are! The fact is they've been worrying about our safety just as much as we've been worrying about theirs. 

Here are situations to plan for and discuss:

Having people over: We've heard about parents who are permitting their student to “pod” with a friend or two (including significant others). This may involve confirming that the other family or families are also limiting comings-and-goings at their houses. But you may prefer that your student only visit with their friends outdoors on your patio, a "living room" with space heaters in the garage, etc.

Going over to friends’ houses: It's now crystal clear that the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission take place when people spend time together indoors without masks. To be as safe as possible, when spending time with their friends your student should:

  • Stay outside. Encourage your student and their buddies to grab camp chairs, sleeping bags and thermoses of coffee/hot chocolate and head to a nearby park or a spacious backyard to circle up for their visits. Walks and hikes are another great choice. 
  • Wear face coverings when they’re at someone else’s place and keep the visit short. 
  • Continue to be vigilant about hand washing.
  • Avoid parties. Kids shouldn’t be hosting large gatherings but sometimes things just “happen.” Talk proactively with your student about what they’ll do if they walk in the door at a pod friend’s and find people they didn’t expect to see. Talk about drinking, too; alcohol isn’t conducive to good decision-making. 

Restaurants, shopping, the gym, a part-time job, etc.: Depending on what’s open in your community, touch base with your student about what activities you’re comfortable with them doing.

Be prepared to stand your ground.

You love them and want to be close to them, and you also don't want them to feel like Rapunzel locked in her tower. But if your student's activities outside your house introduce an uncomfortable level of risk, it’s reasonable to ask them to stay in their room as much as possible and wear a face covering when in shared family areas.

Your student has been dealing with pandemic-related limitations for a while, so don’t hesitate to communicate with them about it! They can handle it.

2. Lighten Up on Less Important Things

We don’t need to rehash the losses and disappointments our kids have experienced this fall. We’ve had our own. They’ve been resilient and for the most part they’ve adjusted.  

Still, it’s important to remember that they’ve had a difficult fall.

Take the opportunity to check in with them about their mental health. And let them know it’s made you proud to watch them make the best of their situation and do their part to keep their community safe. We all need to be appreciated, and to know our actions have meaning. 

Our students deserve to unwind and let it all hang out a bit. That may mean we give them more leeway than usual when it comes to:

  • Making their bed and picking up their room 
  • Pitching in with cooking and chores
  • Joining every family meal
  • Finding a job to make some money over winter break


  • Enlist their company with things like cooking dinner and walking the dog. 
  • Invite them to help you with a project — wrapping gifts, creating an outdoor gathering space on your patio, or planting paperwhite bulbs (super easy to trek to your local hardware store for the supplies or order them online).
  • Maybe they’d like to help write the holiday cards this year. What a nice surprise for friends and relatives to get a note from your student!

Keep calm and carry on.

It’s always a good idea to anticipate what might come up so we don’t let emotions get the best of us and foil constructive communication.

It may turn out to be a bit of a negotiation with your student on different aspects of pandemic safety, but keeping perspective and some healthy boundaries on both sides will help you all make the most of your precious time together.

Maybe a family dinner every night is unrealistic (especially if you're still getting used to spending so much time together again), and sometimes your student wants to take food to their room and Zoom or FaceTime with buddies. Instead you might agree on a few days out of the week that everyone will sit down together whether it’s for a meal or a family game night.

Many of us have been apart from loved ones for much longer than we’re accustomed to, and the most important thing this holiday season is to truly relish and appreciate the time we get to spend together now. 

Though it’s likely you will clash at some point or another, remember that it’s normal to have a little difficulty adjusting for everyone, and you can still have an amazing time together despite any little hiccups along the way.

CollegiateParent supports you on your own personal journey during your student's college years. We answer questions, share stories and connect you to life on campus. Reach out to us at any time!

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