Home for the Holidays

About five minutes after our oldest child left for college, our middle child moved himself into his brother’s downstairs bedroom. This was a settled plan, as our middle son’s prior arrangements “forced” him to share a bathroom with his sister. These siblings did not agree on much, but sharing a bathroom was a mutual vexation too great to bear a moment longer.

Then our oldest came home for Christmas. The agreement was that when he came home, younger brother and he would share the downstairs bedroom. As with most things in the daily dealings of family life, the plan was perfect on paper, and messy and imperfect lived out. Our oldest craved some privacy after months of dorm life, and our younger son was not thrilled to be sharing. Ultimately, there loomed the pressing question, “Whose room is it?”

The in-between time of college is a complicated season. A college student is not a grown up with housing of his or her own but is also no longer a full time resident in their childhood home. Bedroom logistics aside, what are the new rules? What are we to expect from our returned college student? Are we the same family? Am I still the parent who governs the comings and goings of this visiting child? Are we hosting a guest or resuming our former relationship with our college student?

If your child leaves home to attend college, the reality is that he eats when and what he wishes, stays up until he decides to turn in, maintains his living quarters in a manner acceptable to him, spends as much time on electronic devices as he pleases, and keeps company with folks you don’t know.  This is a positive step towards full maturity and independence. It is also likely that your college kid has made some bad decisions, decisions you may be in the dark about. This can be anything from choosing an overly ambitious course load to experimenting with alcohol and drugs. We parents are not there and are therefore at the mercy of what they choose to tell us.

Here are a few thoughts from a parent who has had three college kids come home for the holidays.

Let go of as much control as you can.Psalm 32:8 assures us that I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  This means our heavenly father has his eye on your child. God will instruct and teach your child in the way He intends for your child to go. Much of our parenting work is finished. While it is reasonable to request that your child let you know his plans for the evening, your days of waiting up for him are over. After all, who has been waiting up for him while he was away at school?

Aim for quality time with your returned college child rather than quantity of time.  Those first visits home were fraught with my self-imposed expectations of what we would do together, which boiled down to everything. I envisioned them keeping me company while I prepared their favorite meals, having spontaneous cups of hot chocolate together while they confided everything to me, catching a few matinees, walking our dog together while they sought my advice, and even doing errands together. I completely set myself up for disappointment. My kids wanted to sleep, see friends, and hibernate. They really wanted to walk the dog by themselves with their earbuds intact.

The Message translates James 4:1 this way: Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. James is addressing Jewish Christian house churches, but his evaluation of the cause of the quarreling is applicable to a family. I wanted my children’s time home from college, especially at Christmas, to go the way I wanted it to go. As James makes clear, that is a recipe for disappointment and quarreling, and I experienced both.

Go gently if your returned child expresses disinterest in attending church.  This can happen, even to the strongest of Christian families. While much depends on the atmosphere at the college your child is attending, it is generally true that church attendance and bible study are not encouraged or practiced by the majority of college students. There are wonderful exceptions, but they are not the rule. Romans 14:1 says, As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.  I believe that this is a turning point in the life of a young person, and we do best to shore up our own faith and get out of God’s way.  God pursues his lost sheep. When this happened in our home, I asked our churchless child to go to Christmas services with us, and I let him determine the rest of his church attendance. He was in complete agreement.

Work out this transition with your college kid. It is good to remember that all of this is new and strange for everyone. I noticed, for example, that my college kids always came home changed. My disdainer of seafood suddenly loved sushi, another one was articulating political ideology that he must have gotten from regularly reading The New York Times, and another one came home in love with a person I had not met. Who knew? Likewise, any change to our home, our routines, our lifestyle could be unsettling for the returning child.  “What do you mean we aren’t going to Nanny and Papa’s house Christmas night?!  Why are they coming here??” “What happened to the chair in the den?”

Colossians 3: 12 – 14 says, Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

 Adjustments need to be figured out while expectations need to be kept in check. I found that agreeing to both our adjustments and our shared expectations with our children on the front end benefited our family greatly. We were better able to bear one another with patience and kindness.  And, for what it is worth, I suggest you begin your family discussion with the huge pile of dirty laundry that came home with your beloved child.

Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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