Joe College Goes Home For The Holidays

It is Sunday, and I am back home after driving my middle son to SFO airport at the end of his freshman Thanksgiving visit. It was the first time I had seen him since dropping him off at college in August, and it was wonderful. We chatted about life and about school, and he seemed quite content to hang out with his parents. After years of getting “Nothing much” or “Whatever” in response to questions about friends or school, this was no doubt a testament to his growth and manna to our ears.

For many families, however, that much-anticipated first visit home for Thanksgiving or Christmas can easily sink into dashed hopes and high anxiety. In part this happens because parents and student approach the visit with remarkably different expectations. Parents usually want nothing more than having their child back at home again, just as if he or she was still in grade school and fully under their control. And indeed, this weekend when I looked at my son sleeping, it was as if he was a baby again and I stroked his head with the same unbearable rush of love. But in a corner of their minds, parents also hope that the young child will now come with adult opinions, meaningful conversations about life, and perhaps even thoughtful descriptions of friends and their extracurricular life.

Students, on the other hand, also just want to be back home again – freely raiding the pantry, having their laundry done, sleeping until noon – but together with the added freedom to which college life has accustomed them. Parents of international students have even more to process when they see their child on her visit home from the US. The student talks about rituals of which they know little, expresses herself in a mode which seems distinctly foreign to them, and describes a world they have never experienced.

With an effort to understand the other’s perspective and a bit of tolerance on both sides, families can, however, cope and have a joyful homecoming. As all of us who have ever gone home as adults know, back in your parents’ home you find yourself locked into childhood behaviors that no amount of aging can seemingly overcome. We argue with siblings just as we did when were ten, and our parents annoy us with the same irksome interference they showed when we were teens. Similarly, when our students come home as young adults, we all revert to old ways of behaving that no longer fit with their new status as independent adults.

But for the sake of that warm and homey holiday we all long for, we have to stand back and appreciate that our sons and our daughters are, as Bob Dylan reminded us, beyond our command, even when we still pay the bills and they are sleeping under our roofs. We raised them to be independent and self-sufficient adults, and so when they act as if they are, we have to, as we told them when they were younger, “deal with it.” On the other hand, children should know that as rightly proud as they are of their new independence, as hard as they are working at becoming the newer and better adults they aim to be, there are ways in which they will forever remain fixed in our minds as little boys and girls. And that is not so bad. After all, why else would we be feeding them, doing their laundry, and paying the bills?

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