Students come home for the holidays
By Leslie Banahan
Leslie Banahan, M.Ed.
Most students are eager for an extended break from college life and look forward to time at home during the fall holidays. Students typically anticipate the comforts and privacy of their old bedrooms and baths, favorite home-cooked meals, and plenty of time for sleep (impossibly long hours of sleep) and hanging out with high school friends. Of course, students might miss their new friends, especially if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend at college, and they will quickly long for the freedoms of college life as they return to Draconian parent rules for the duration of their time at home. Parents, with great anticipation, count the days until fall break, eager to spend time with their students and learn more about classes, friends, roommates, professors, grades, dates and every other thing they can think of to ask at the family dinner table.
The first extended visit home from college highlights a relationship in transition as students move from adolescence to adulthood. It may be small comfort to parents, but the first visit is usually the most intense and stressful; future visits are easier, trust me. Students expect everything to be the same at home as when they left in August and can be quite offended if any changes have been made in the family routine. Parents, if you have been so bold as to make a change or two in the household, be prepared. Your student may be critical, hurt and resentful. "How dare they change anything when I'm gone? I'm the one who's supposed to change, not home!" Students often express surprise that life has gone on without them, as if they weren't even missed.
Parents have slightly different expectations from their students for the extended holiday visit. Parents have been known to spend days, if not weeks, preparing for the visit. As one father describes it, "You'd think royalty was coming the way my wife cooks, cleans and plans for our daughter's visits. Upon arrival, there's a quick hello from the guest of honor, she sleeps close to 24 hours straight and then disappears with her friends for the rest of the break."
Parents anticipate that their students will attend family gatherings and dinners, freely share the details of college life and maybe even help out around the house. Your students may protest one or all of these demands on their time. Parents and students are on a collision course, each having clearly different expectations for the visit. Does this surprise you?
While it's only been a few months since they left home for college, much has happened as freshmen have struggled with and finally embraced new freedoms and responsibilities. Now, your students may look the same, unless they've gotten a tattoo, body piercing or new hair color, but they have been living a life unique to the college experience. Their schedules consist of small blocks of time devoted to class, studying, sleeping, eating, sleeping, socializing, sleeping, working, and sleeping and so on. They haven't napped so much since infancy! Our students don't "go out" until after 9 or 10 o'clock at night and think nothing of staying up until the very early morning hours. It is a lifestyle only the young can survive! How will this lifestyle fit in with your family routine?
And then, there is "The Attitude" with a capital A!
Students often enjoy flaunting their new independence, challenging long-held values and belief systems of the family. For example, my daughter came home for her first visit from college and announced that she was a vegan. We endured many a lecture on the evils of eating "flesh" and animal by-products (i.e., milk and milk products) that found their way to our table only after animals endured unspeakable horrors of emotional and physical abuse. So much for the hours I spent cooking her favorite meal (spaghetti and meatballs)!
Other parents experience lengthy and convoluted arguments about politics or religion. One mother nearly choked when her son came into the den smoking a pipe! Yes, a pipe. He had changed his major to philosophy and taken up pipe smoking as part of his new persona. It took every ounce of discipline mom had to keep from bursting into laughter. (Update on my daughter: Ten years later, she is a happy carnivore who doesn't seem to remember her vegan days, much less her smug and superior attitude displayed during her freshman fall visit.) Believe me when I say, humor helps. Parents, just keep smiling, and bring out the organic peanut butter and dairy-free bread!
I advise students to be considerate of their parents and to take into account how much their parents are interested in their lives at college. Home is not a residence hall, and students shouldn't expect to come and go as if they were living with 400 other freshmen. Students may balk at curfews and family dinners, and parents probably will be disappointed in how little time they actually get to spend with their students, but I recommend that all people concerned choose their battles carefully and try to be flexible in negotiating wants and needs. Communication is the key. As long as everyone is talking AND listening, there is hope for negotiation and compromise. And remember, the first visit is the most challenging! It does get easier with time.
Leslie Banahan is assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Mississippi.