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You’d Better Watch Out, You’d Better Not Cry, Your College Kid is Coming (Back) to Town!

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Tomorrow I’ll head out to pick up my freshman for winter break. On the one hand of course I’ll be thrilled to have him home for almost a month. On the other hand I confess I’m a little apprehensive: Will he fit in to our new household routine? Will he be bored by our life, which is considerably quieter than a freshman dorm? And perhaps the biggest unknown: How will we adjust to his new independence, in light of his younger sister’s routines and rules, not to mention our own sanity?

I’ve prepared myself to not see him much—I know he’ll want to sleep late into the morning and visit with his old buddies late into the night. To help me prepare for other changes, I’ve been doing some reading, hunting for tips for making this vacation a good one. Here are some suggestions I’ve gleaned on the subject of adjusting to a college kid’s return to the fold for the holidays:

Manage your expectations. Along with those visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, I know I’ve got fantasies of joyous reunions and laughter and togetherness, along with hot cocoa and roasting chestnuts—the works! Reality is bound to be different, and if I’m not careful—disappointing. So I’m trying to be aware of my hidden agendas—trying to let them go so I can simply be open to whatever is actually happening, rather than holding on to what I think should be happening.

Keep connected to the younger sibs. My younger daughter has gotten used to being the center of parental attention (for better or worse)—and she’s definitely gotten used to having a bathroom to herself! Having her older brother home may take some getting used to. Other younger sibs may have to adjust to having to share access to the car. I want to check in with my daughter from time to time to see how it’s going for her to have her brother around.

Same with the college kid. I expect mine to be exhausted from a long semester, topped off by a week or two of exams. And I know from his previous trips home that it can take him a while to settle in, to feel like home is actually home. I expect our little town to feel a lot smaller to him on this extended break—and a lot less interesting than the city where he now lives. And I wonder how it’ll be when his little sister is busy with her school activities and sports, and he has less contact with her than maybe he thought he would…

Plan a few family activities, but not too many. To make sure we do spend some fun time together, we bought tickets to a hockey game and a concert we know we’ll all enjoy. And we have some family gatherings lined up right around Christmas. Otherwise, we’re trying to keep things loose, partly because I know my freshman likes his down time, but also because I know it’s going to be important for him to reconnect with his old high school friends. Which leads me to:

Be ready to renegotiate rules and expectations. My son is used to staying out pretty late when he’s on campus, and that’s largely fine with me, since I don’t know when he’s coming or going. But it’s going to be a challenge for me when he’s heading out for the night as I’m heading up to bed. We’re going to have to talk that out: I don’t want to give him a hard-and-fast curfew, but letting his housemates (i.e., his family) know where he’s going and when he’ll be home is common courtesy, right? That’s how I plan to approach it.

Enjoy your young adult! In her book Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years, Karen Coburn suggests asking your college kid to take some inventory now that the first big semester is over. “Winter break is an opportunity for students to reflect on the semester—on ways they have changed, on what they have learned and on how their goals are evolving,” she writes. “Conversations between parents and their college age children about these topics can be extremely rewarding for both parties.” Coburn adds, “Parents who engage in conversations of this sort with their children, rather than just asking them about grades and professional goals, are likely to find this a very rich experience. It’s a great feeling to have your child open up new worlds for you. Listen to their excitement over new ideas without judgment. Ask your child to recommend a favorite book to you.” That sounds like fun, right? After all the work we put into raising our kids, here’s our chance to enjoy the young adults they’re becoming. I hope I remember to slow down and do just that!

Okay experienced empty nesters: What else do we need to know to prepare for this upcoming winter break?

That beautiful image? Some rights reserved by Bert Kaufmann.

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Waiting for Wisdom

From MetroParent

Image courtesy: MetroParent

By Chris Little

One of the things I’m learning about having a college student for a kid: My role as his parent demands quite new behaviors from me. When something happens to him–let’s say the end of a relationship, an untimely migraine headache, or even just a hassle with a class schedule–where I once might have swooped in with advice or a cup of tea, I’m learning that my role now is to, well, just kind of sit still. Preferably in silence. It’s been… let’s just say, it’s been a learning experience—and this from someone who was never one of those helicopter moms who made a life out of rescuing her kids.

The wonderful writer Anne Lamott became a grandmother not too long ago, an experience she learned provided a whole new opportunity to sit still and let her adult son, now a parent himself, learn his own lessons. She came up with an acronym to help her remember that it’s no longer her role to step in and run the show: W.A.I.T., which stands for Why Am I Talking? You can read about it here and here.

It’s hard for us parents, and maybe especially for us often hyper-communicative mothers, to opt for silence sometimes. At least in my house, my husband is much better about giving the kids space to work things out on their own without the benefit of his talking. So as I’ve been adjusting to having one kid living halfway across the state, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lamott’s handy mnemonic. I like to take each word in turn:

Why am I talking? What purpose do I wish my words to serve? All too often, I can talk for unhelpful reasons, like wanting to keep my kids engaged with me, wanting to protect them (or myself) from uncomfortable feelings—or thinking my words can serve as a kind of talisman to protect them in unsafe situations. One day I heard a radio show about the drug MDMA, and I commented to my high-school daughter that I thought I’d give the freshman a call, you know, just to remind him to steer clear of parties where kids might be trying it. “Don’t,” she suggested, kindly hiding her impulse to roll her eyes. “He’s already learned all that, and at this point, your telling him isn’t going to do anything but irritate him.” She had a point. Still, I had this feeling that if I could just warn him against the drug (again), I could protect him. I know I’m not the only mom who’s wanted to dole out desperate little pieces of advice out of a deeply engrained instinct to protect my kids. “Don’t climb too high!” “Hold on tight!” “Be careful!” Now, that’s not to say I’m never going to give my freshman a nugget of advice—but I suppose I should start by knowing why I want to do it in the first place, and follow up by asking myself whether it’s something the kid really doesn’t already know.

Why am I talking? If I’m the one doing the talking, what’s my kid doing? Is he listening? Is he tuning out? Is he wishing he could get out of the room? And what about me? Am I thinking about the kid at all—or am I just satisfying my desire to control him? In other words, are he and I actually communicating, or am I just lecturing, or worse, filling space? Have I asked him his point of view? Am I letting it be as real as mine feels to me?

Why am I talking? Because most of the time, listening is better. And if you’re so inclined, prayer is too (as long as we’re talking about private, silent, open-hearted prayer, not the spoken kind that seeks to guilt-trip the kid, which is really just another form of exerting control).

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not giving my college kid the silent treatment, not by any stretch of the imagination! But now that my freshman is more on his own, I’m trying to be more aware of what I’m saying to him and why, so that I give him the space to grow into a healthy adult (and not coincidentally, hopefully one who wants to spend time with me!).

Kat B. said it very well over at Travel Garden Eat when she quoted Robert Brault: “It is one thing to show your child the way, and a harder thing to then stand out of it.”

 

What I Learned on Fall Break

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By Chris Little

My college freshman was home for Fall Break last weekend. It was lovely to have him hanging around, to get a good look at him and catch up on everything he’s been up to (well, probably not everything—and that’s okay!). I do feel like I learned a few things that will help me next time he comes home:

Be patient. It took a while for my freshman to re-acclimate to being at home. He commented the first morning that he felt like he was just visiting a place where his family happened to live. That was a little heart-breaking—I felt in a deep way like he was really gone, that he could never truly come home again. But false alarm: it wasn’t long at all before he was lounging on the couch in his sweatpants, just like the good old days.

Be patient! It took a while for me to re-acclimate to having my kid at home! I’ll admit I was near tears several times over the weekend thinking about how great it was to have him around … and how soon he’d be gone again. I know we’re not supposed to take our loved ones for granted, but I’ll tell you, treasuring every moment can be emotionally exhausting.

Be even more patient! My house pretty much immediately returned to pre-college levels of clutter and disorder. Lots of deep breaths … and reminding myself I’d have plenty of time to clean up after he headed back to school.

Beware of over-scheduling. He may have had the weekend off, but he still had lots of homework to do. I’m glad we didn’t pre-schedule any activities and social events.

Be prepared to cook. My freshman reported being thoroughly sick and tired of eating out, even if it was just at the dining hall. Believe it or not, he really craved my cooking! I was ready with a menu of his favorites—in fact, I sent him back to school with tubs of “leftovers” I’d cooked especially for him, including some of his favorite desserts.

Make a (short) to do list. We spent one afternoon getting stuff done: haircut, flu shot, underwear shopping, and laundry. That felt good.

Make some coffee. My kid has always been a night owl, a tendency that’s been exaggerated by living in a dorm. It was fun to stay up late talking—well, trying to. Next time I’ll brew some caffeine and be more alert!

Take a deep breath. The most reassuring thing I learned is that we’re all still connected. We’re still a family.

It’s over way too soon! I’m already counting the days until Thanksgiving.

How about you more experienced empty-nesters, who’ve seen kids come and go on Fall Break or other vacations from college—what are some tips for the rest of us?

Feverish Far From Home: When Your College Kid Gets Sick


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By Chris Little

It wasn’t long after my son got to college that I felt that primal urge to speed halfway across the state to rescue him. He was at the first home football game with some friends when early in the first quarter he began seeing those weird visual disturbances that signal an oncoming migraine. Now, he gets one every month or so, so he knows the signs and he’s got medicine that helps—which sadly he didn’t have with him at the game—no backpacks allowed. Still, he got himself home and slept it off and basically managed things fine. But then, just a couple days later, he felt another one coming on—he’s never had them that frequently, so I was more concerned. What should I do? Should I drive out there? But what could I do once I got there? In the end I suggested he go to his school’s student health center, which he did. The doctor adjusted his medicine and made a few other suggestions, and things are going better.

But I know this isn’t the last time my kid will ever have health problems far from home. You know, college kids live crammed together in those dorms, not getting enough sleep and sharing all kinds of germs. What can I do to support my kid—and his independence—when he’s sick at school? I did some reading, and here’s what I found:

First aid kitPreparation

  • Teach them to keep themselves healthy. Before they move out, we need to make sure our kids know all about healthful eating, sufficient resting, frequent hand-washing, and scrupulous sneeze-covering. Now’s your chance to nag!
  • Arm them with antibodies. Send your student off to college thoroughly vaccinated—her school will tell you what shots she needs.
  • Equip them with a first aid kit. Keep it simple: a thermometer, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, some antibiotic cream and bandages. You might also toss in some liquid soap or hand sanitizer.
  • Encourage them to get a flu shot. If her school doesn’t offer them, suggest that your student check the nearest pharmacy. I took advantage of my son’s recent Fall Break visit to have him vaccinated. Yes, it’s a hassle, but it’s less of a hassle than having the flu over exam week!
  • In case of emergency. Suggest that your student program her school’s emergency numbers into her cell phone. It’s also wise to know the location of the nearest urgent care center or emergency room.

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No matter how hard your kid tries to stay healthy, she’s likely to get sick at some point during her college years. What should she do? For the most part, she should do just what you’d tell her to do if she were home, of course!

  • Shelter in place. If she’s not too sick, your student can just rest in her room and treat her symptoms with plentiful liquids and acetaminophen or cold medicine. It’s also a good idea for her to let her resident assistant know how she’s doing.
  • Get some help. If she’s very sick or has diarrhea and/or vomiting that doesn’t resolve in a couple hours, suggest that your child head to her school’s student health center. But don’t rely on the school to tell you how she’s doing—privacy rules prohibit them from discussing your student’s health unless she gives express permission.
  • Send a bulletin. If your student is sick enough to miss classes, remind her to notify her professors.

StethoscopeIn the Waiting Room

But what about us parents hovering at a distance — is there anything we can do? Sure!

  • Be available. Let your student know you’re there for him if he needs you, but don’t rush in to rescue him (but see below).
  • Be attentive. You might check in a little more often than usual via text or phone. But be sensitive to signals that your “a little more” is perhaps “a little too much” for your kid.
  • Be thick-skinned. Taking care of our sick offspring is a strong instinct! It’s hard not to take it personally when said offspring wants to take care of herself. Still, try to take her cold (though perhaps feverish) shoulder for what it is—a sign of healthy independence.
  • Be generous. That is, when it comes to mailing a care package and/or get-well card. Now’s your chance to indulge your nurturing impulses by packing that box full of tea, soup mix, tissues, favorite snacks, the works.
  • Be wise. If you’re worried that your student is in real trouble, such as struggling with depression or other serious emotional or physical difficulties, it’s probably time to step in more directly. And of course, if you fear your student is in danger, call the school and/or the local police immediately.

More Than a Common Cold?

Recovering from a more serious or longer-term illness like mono in a dorm room can be rough. What then?

  • Move in-house? Some student health centers are equipped with an infirmary where your student can rest apart from the ruckus in the dorm. Ask your student if this sounds like a good option.
  • Come home? Some families live close enough to bring their student home for a short break to recuperate—sometimes a few days of home-grown TLC is all it takes.
  • Keep the school in the loop. If you and your student determine that it’s best for him to come home for more than one or two days, make sure he notifies his professors, resident assistant, and academic advisor. Most professors will work with a student to accommodate a medical absence—if they know it’s happening.

I hate to think of my college kid suffering from an illness while he’s away from home, but I know it’s part of letting him grow into independence. What are some other strategies for supporting a sick kid from a distance?

Texts and Technology are Great, but it’s the Hand-Written Word that Matters

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By Karen Hendricks

I miss my college freshman daughter every day, but our daily texts or comments on social media help to fill in the gaps. FaceTime has become an anticipated weekly tradition as well… except that the five of us still try to talk all at once and we have to learn how to pace ourselves and take turns with conversation!

As wonderful as technology is at helping us keep in touch despite the miles between us, I cherish the written word so much more. A few weeks ago, I was surprised to receive a care package FROM my daughter. It was a belated birthday gift–a college sweatshirt that I wear with great pride! But even more valuable: A hand-written letter that my daughter took the time to write. Written in her sweet handwriting, almost a page long, the letter expresses not only birthday wishes but thankfulness. Here’s an excerpt:

I just want to let you know how much I love you and how much I appreciate everything you have done for me. I cannot explain how much your support… and our family means to me. I am so lucky and blessed by God to have you, Mom! 

Do tangible things like letters hold more meaning simply because you CAN hold them? Although I enjoy her daily texts, this letter was much more meaningful and touching.

I sent her a college care package recently and included something written as well. First, I have to say that I have an obsession with paint chip samples. Ok, so, with paint chips on the brain, I came up with the idea to put together a little flip book using the paint chips as pages, and writing inspirational sayings, mom-isms and memories on the pages. She likes to put calendars with inspirational sayings on her desk, so I could imagine her getting a “daily dose of mom” via my flip book.

Hopefully it gave her a tangible reminder of how much her mom loves her too!

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To make your own flip book, you simply need:

  • paint chip samples of the same size
  • a Sharpie for writing
  • a hole punch
  • a ribbon or a binder ring to hold the pages together

How do you keep in touch with your college-aged family members? Do you agree that the written word is more meaningful?

Click here for fellow blogger Chris Little’s series on “The Emptying Nest”

Updates from the Emptying Nest: Getting Ready for Fall Break and Thanksgiving Vacation

4042911267_a4124b6191By Chris Little

This morning it’s just 23 days until my beloved first-born, now a bona-fide college freshman, comes home for his first Fall Break. And after that, just a month or so until Thanksgiving. It seems like I’m only beginning to get used to setting one less place at the dinner table, and already I’m thinking about how soon he’ll be back. (Hooray!) Here are some things I’m doing to get ready:

1. Talking with him about travel arrangements. I’m not looking at bus tickets though—he’s a big boy and he’s got a credit card, so he can do the actual planning and ticket buying. But I know he’s got his mind on other things (his studies, right?), so I’m doing a little friendly reminding (read: gentle nagging) so he’ll take a look at transportation options sooner rather than later. After all, bus seats fill up fast for weekend and holiday travel—not to mention plane seats, for those whose kids are further afield—and I’d like to avoid having to drive out to pick him up if I can.

2. And appointments. Okay this doesn’t matter so much to my son, who’s happy to slip into pretty much any friendly neighborhood barbershop when he needs a trim, but if you’ve got a suave son or daughter who’s committed to a particular hairstylist, you might remind him or her to call soon for that Thanksgiving-weekend appointment. The same goes for the orthodontist, physician, or dentist … we all know freshmen who get their wisdom teeth pulled the day after Thanksgiving—if yours needs to be one of them, getting an appointment early will save a hassle later.

photo (3)3. Planning a few favorite menu items. I know my son loves my chicken potpie and baked spaghetti casserole, and those lemon bars I make in the summertime, so I’m beginning to think about when I’ll be making them over his break. And I think I’ll pick up an extra set of food storage tubs so I can send him back to school with some leftovers to heat in his microwave…

4. Talking about activities. I certainly don’t want to fill up all his time, but is there anything special he’d like to do as a family, or as an extended family, while he’s home?

5. Managing my expectations. I’m pretty sure my dear freshman will be happy to see us when he gets home—but he’ll also be eager to check in with his high school buddies, and to sleep late in his own bed. Chances are we won’t spend hours and hours sitting cozily on the couch together with mugs of tea talking about his feelings and hopes and dreams. I can daydream about those conversations, but I’m trying to stay realistic: He might spend the weekend asleep or out of the house! I have to be okay with that, and so far I am.

It’s going to be great to have him home — to set four places around the table again! — but I’m sure it won’t be exactly how I imagine it. And it’ll go by so fast, and then he’ll be gone again. So these days I’m  enjoying looking forward to his visit, and doing what I can to make sure things go smoothly.

Of course I’d love to hear how more experienced empty-nesters approach vacations. What do you do to plan? How do you prepare? What are the best parts? The most challenging parts?

First image: Some rights reserved by lynn dombrowski. Second image: My dinner plates!

Real Estate Negotiations: What to do with your child’s room (and her stuff) after she heads to college

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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!

Tidy bedroomNow 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!

Images: Messy room: Some rights reserved by Rubbermaid Products; Tidy room: Pottery Barn Teen.