By Chris Little
If you’ve got a new college kid, by now she’s off at school. You’re likely adjusting to the quiet, doing a little less cooking and laundry—and walking past her empty room a couple times a day.
About that room: It’s no longer in active use—at least her half of it, if your kids share. So what are you going to do with all that space? And all the stuff in it?
Maybe you’re one of those parents who was tempted to stop by Sherwin Williams on your way home from dropping your freshman off at orientation, so you could set right to work repainting that room and converting it into a home office. Or maybe what you really want to do is shut the bedroom door and leave your kid’s room completely intact, as a memorial to his early days.
I suppose most of us fall somewhere in the middle. As for me, I wanted to leave my son’s room more or less the way it was, so he’s got a comfortable, familiar space to come home to at Thanksgiving. But to be honest, his room was too much of a mess to leave untouched. (No, that’s not his room up above, but you get the idea!)
Over the years I’ve been pretty laissez-faire when it comes to the tidiness of my kids’ rooms. My stance has been that the kids’ rooms are their domain, so they should get to decide how tidy to keep them—within limits, of course! So once the kids got old enough to help, I expected them to pitch in with the house cleaning when I asked them to, but I didn’t clean their rooms for them, and I pretty much let them decide how much or often to clean them—but no dirty dishes or uneaten food allowed!
As it turns out, my daughter is pretty fastidious, but my son is, well, not. Certainly he’ll clean up if he needs to (like when his grandmother is coming to visit), and he vacuums his carpet regularly enough—but the place hadn’t been dusted in quite awhile. I have to admit that part of what got me through sending him off to college was the thought that I could finally get in there and wipe down his bookshelves!
Now to be sure, we talked about it beforehand—I told him my intentions, because I didn’t want to invade his space unannounced. And so last weekend, armed with dust rags and wood polish, I addressed myself to his room, dusting off his dresser, bookshelves, and desk, carefully replacing his books and treasures where I found them, and resisting the urge to do much organizing or discarding. I kept in mind that this room is still his room, and the decision about whether to throw away those old movie ticket stubs is his to make, not mine.
I also did some reading about what other parents have decided to do with their kids’ rooms. It seems like there’s a consensus that rushing into renovations is a bad idea. Here’s what I learned:
1. Leave their room intact, at least for a while. For at least the first semester, it’s probably a good idea to leave your college kid’s room pretty much as-is, if you can. Of course it’s a different story if you’ve got younger siblings eager to expand into the empty space (see below). But otherwise, go ahead and do some dusting and tidying, but don’t change things around too much. They’ll be home before you know it for fall break and Thanksgiving, and you want them to feel like they’ve got a home to come home to.
2. Before you toss it out, talk it over. I’m a stickler for privacy and boundaries, so I won’t pick up anything more than a wet towel in my kids’ rooms without making sure they’re okay with it. More reasonable parents might have a great routine for how much cleaning they do in their kids’ rooms. But regardless, before you go in there and start tossing out old school work or donating their Legos to the homeless shelter, it seems respectful that you’d check in with your college kid, preferably before she leaves home or during a break from school. You want to make sure you don’t accidentally throw out something precious to her—and you want to give her a chance to stash her journals, love letters, and anything else it’s really not your business to find.
3. Same goes for big changes. If you’ve got younger siblings who need the space your college kid has vacated, or if you really need to convert that room into a home office, be sure to talk it over with your college kid before you break out the paint brush. And make sure you reserve some closet space and a corner for her bed, or at least a sofa bed, so she’s got a place to sleep and stow her stuff when she comes home for winter break.
4. Be patient. Chances are that when your college kid comes home for Thanksgiving his room will already feel a little alien, the posters a little juvenile, and the old ticket stubs less meaningful. It could be that your kid will even help you do some decluttering over the winter holidays!
5. If you can, let them bunk with you until after graduation. While we don’t want our homes to become storage units for our absent children, letting our kids keep their claim to their bedroom real estate until they’re settled into their own apartment after graduation can pay off for you. It’ll make visits home less stressful—and more likely to be repeated—if your kid has a comfortable place to stay. It may also help your kid make smart choices knowing she’s got a safety net if she needs it, rather than rushing into just any housing situation because she needs one. And keep in mind that even though today it might feel like your college kid has moved out for good, the reality is she probably hasn’t—some studies find that well more than half of college graduates move home for at least a little while after commencement while they’re looking for work.
How about you, empty nesters? What did you do with your college kids’ rooms after they left? And how soon did you do it? I’d love to hear your advice!