- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

Thomas Brennan, 18, has had a curfew-free, no-questions-asked, independent three months as a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

Yet he doesn’t foresee any conflicts with his parents over house rules and late-night partying as he plans to spend the holiday season — first Thanksgiving and later Christmas — at his childhood home in Capitol Hill.

“We have a very open relationship, and I suspect things will be pretty much the same as when I left,” Mr. Brennan says. “My curfew was very flexible when I was in high school. As long as I called and told them where I was, they were fine.”

Not all parents and children, however, have such seamless transitions, says Marjorie Savage, the Parent Program director at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“Coming home for Thanksgiving can be very challenging for both the student and the parents. Students come home with certain expectations, and the parents have their expectations, and the two rarely match,” Ms. Savage says. “Students want their parents to know they are independent, and parents want their students to slide back into the family.”

The biggest bone of contention between parents and students is curfews, says Brooke Supple, acting director of Parent and Family Affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park.

“The students are used to being up late at night and not having to answer to anyone,” Ms. Supple says. They have no interest in curtailing this newfound freedom, she adds.

Other sticking points include the students borrowing a family car, spending more time with friends than family, not helping with household chores, bringing home a significant other, and staying up until early morning hours and sleeping until noon, she says.

Mr. Brennan’s mother, Louise Brennan, says she doesn’t mind her son sleeping in, but she can’t help but worry a little when he’s out late.

“At around 10 or 11, as I’m getting ready to go to bed, they’re just getting started,” she says. “At least with cell phones, I can reach him.”

Her husband, Bruce Brennan adds, “I never wait up, but the children have all learned that their mother doesn’t sleep well until all her chicks are in the nest.”

Tattoos and piercings

Students also may have made changes to their appearances, such as getting tattoos or piercings, or changed their views on politics and religion. Many students also become vegetarians that first year, Ms. Supple says.

“To a parent, three months seems like a short time, but to a student… they can change a tremendous amount in that first semester,” she says.

Mr. Brennan says he feels more independent and self-sufficient, but as for changes to his appearance or religion, he made those earlier.

“I did all that stuff in high school. I shaved my head and let my hair grow back,” Mr. Brennan says, “and I became more interested in Eastern philosophy than traditional religion.”

While each family deals with these changes differently, a good general guideline is for parents to keep an open mind, says James Boyle, president of College Parents of America, an Arlington-based national nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of parents of college students.

“Keeping an open heart is usually not an issue for families. They are very eager to see their children. Keeping an open mind can be challenging,” Mr. Boyle says.

“Children may come back engaged in discussions they never did before,” he says. “They may challenge their parents’ [political and religious] beliefs, and it’s important for parents to understand that is part of their student’s learning and growing experience.”

A key aspect in making the holiday season harmonious is to make sure that a discussion about expectations and any changes the student might have made occurs well before the visit, says Ms. Savage, author of “You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years.”

“Talk a week or two in advance to avoid any surprises. If the student has become a vegetarian, it’s not the time to bring it up when the parents have just finished making Thanksgiving dinner,” she says.

Time for everyone

That before-the-visit phone call also should include a conversation about expectation-setting, Mr. Boyle says. Parents should be clear about when the students are expected to be present for family gatherings and whether they are expected to do household chores.

“Families should be respectful that being home for the holidays is not just about spending 24/7 with Mom, Dad, Grandma and the siblings,” he says. “Give the student clear hours — ‘Thanksgiving dinner is at 2 o’clock, but if you want to see your friends that night, that’s great’ — that way you can avoid hurt feelings on both sides.”

He suggests the family even can set up a schedule that provides opportunity for family time, friend time, downtime and productive time for the student.

Rachel Fus, 18, a freshman at Syracuse University, says she planned her five-day Thanksgiving stay at her Silver Spring childhood home weeks in advance. On the agenda was time spent with friends and visiting her old high school, but the biggest time slot was dedicated to family time.

“I’ll see some of my high school friends, but I’m so looking forward to being with my family,” Miss Fus said before the break. “On Thanksgiving morning, we’ll go to the Woodmoor Pastry Shop. It’s a family tradition.”

Just as parents have to manage their expectations and demands on their children’s time, children also share a responsibility for making the holiday stay at home pleasant for everyone, Mr. Boyle says.

“Students shouldn’t behave as if they are guests in a hotel,” he says. “They shouldn’t expect to be waited on hand and foot by their parents, and they need to follow the norms of the house and help out with chores if asked to.”

During the holidays at home, Mr. Brennan says, he expects he would do all the chores he used to do in high school.

“I’ll probably walk the dog, take out the trash, maybe do my laundry,” he says.

Aside from time to visit with friends and family, do chores and relax, many students work or apply for summer internships during the holidays, particularly during winter break, which can be as long as six weeks, Ms. Supple says.

Mr. Brennan plans to work at a 24-hour diner in Northwest where he held a summer job, and Miss Fus says she plans to look into summer internships in photojournalism.

Boredom often sets in if students have nothing to do for several weeks, which frustrates many parents, Ms. Savage says.

“After winter break, the parents are ready to have their kids go back to school,” she says.

From director to coach

The communication between child and parent changes as the child goes from being a high school student to being a freshman in college, Mr. Boyle says. The parents can no longer tell the child what to do because the parent’s role has changed from “manager” to more of a “coach” or “mentor,” he says.

“You can be a resource for your child. You can offer advice, but you are not saying things have to be a certain way,” Mr. Boyle says.

He recommends that the parent and freshman set aside time for lunch to talk about how the college experience is going.

“In the corporate world, they call it a ‘retreat.’ Try to do the same with your student. Put aside a day or afternoon to talk. It will give you a chance to play that mentor role,” Mr. Boyle says.

Ms. Savage says it’s important to ask open-ended questions during such a conversation.

“It’s better to say, ‘So what’s the party scene like?’ instead of saying, ‘I suppose you go out and get drunk?’ They’re not likely to respond very positively to that,” she says.

Ms. Supple agrees.

“When a student first gets home, you can’t bombard them with questions. You have to ask open-ended questions that allow them to elaborate,” she says.

Miss Fus says the notion of being bombarded with questions from her mother doesn’t apply to the way she and her mother communicate.

“I talk to my mother every day — at least once a day. We talk about everything. I would consider her my best friend,” Ms. Fus says. “Do I consider her a mentor and coach? I do. She was actually my cheerleading coach in high school.”

Mr. Brennan says his parents are good about not sticking their noses where they don’t belong.

“They’re really good about not helping unless I ask them,” says Mr. Brennan, acknowledging that he’s probably benefited from being the youngest of three children.

Ms. Brennan says not prying, not putting demands on her son’s time with his friends or imposing curfews are all part of seeing her son as an adult.

“Bruce and I decided that once [our children] were off to college, they were adults and we should treat them like adults,” she says.

So, does anything bother the Brennans about their freshman coming home for the holidays?

“The hardest things to adjust to are the banana peels they leave, the dropped shoes,” Mr. Brennan says. “But, do I have a problem with [Thomas] bringing friends over? I would pay him money to bring his friends over. The more the better. Just having him around is wonderful.”

More info:

Books —

• “You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years,” by Marjorie Savage, Fireside Books, 2003. This book aims to help parents identify the boundaries between necessary involvement and respect for their child’s independence once the child is in college. It has several sections on what to expect and how to deal with the first few times the child comes home, such as for the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

• “Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting From Senior Year to College Life,” by Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt, Crown Publishing Group, 2002. This book gives advice to parents and students about how to deal with the transition from high school to college. It also offers tips on how to achieve harmonious holidays when a freshman comes home.

• “When Your Kid Goes to College: A Parents’ Survival Guide,” by Carol Barkin, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999. This book discusses such issues as teaching the college student how to balance a checkbook and deal with a roommate. It also can help parents, younger children and even pets deal with the transition when the student leaves — and returns for the holidays.

Association —

• College Parents of America, 2000 N. 14th St., Suite 800, Arlington, VA 22201. Phone: 703/797-7103. Web site: www.collegeparents.org. This national membership organization is dedicated to advocating and serving on behalf of current and future college parents. The group provides information on such topics as students returning home for the holidays and how best to make that time pleasant.

Online —

• The Family Education Network, a commercial Internet company, provides informational resources to parents, teachers and students. Its Web site (www.familyeducation. com) has information about how parents and college students can avoid conflicts and promote peace when the students return home for the holidays.

• Wells Fargo, a national financial institution that administers student loans, offers tips on how parents and college students best can get along when the students come home for the holidays. Go to www.capital4u.net/homefortheholidays.html for an article titled “Home for the Holidays: Keeping the Peace When College Kids Are at Home.”

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