Professor Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD, co-authored this post.
Your empty (or emptier, if you still have a child at home) nest is about to be re-feathered. As you’re preparing for Thanksgiving—shopping for dinner, re-stocking the fridge with the foods you haven’t bought since your freshman left for college – you might be picturing a return to the routines and expectations you had three months ago. In fact, you are about to greet someone whose experiences, perceptions, and expectations have changed, and who has been working to build a new home at college. For you, this is a homecoming. For your offspring (note we didn’t say “child.” There’s a reason for that), this is about leaving one home (or almost home) for another. This is bound to cause a disconnect— but it doesn’t have to be a surprise. And with thought, care, empathy, and communication, you can make this visit-- and future reunions under your roof—a success.
Since August, your offspring has been living with greater self-reliance: waking up for classes (one hopes) without your encouragement; going to sleep – or not—whenever they want; eating when and what they choose; and managing a schedule that varies day to day. Most likely they have been living in a community that is demographically different from yours in some way—for example, in diversity, size, location, or even common ideology.
The freshman about to return to your home for Thanksgiving has also been living a very different life of the mind. They are reading more sophisticated texts (as professors, we tell ourselves they’re doing the reading). While in high school, they might have been asked to explain what a text means, in college they’re being asked to draw their own conclusions from them and even challenge and criticize authors and authorities. They’re attending classes with professors who are experts in the field of study. Both in class and late at night, they’re likely engaging in debates on course work, politics, and culture.
The college freshman is doing all of this while among new friends; forming new support systems; hopefully learning to draw on university resources for academic and other assistance in circumstances where they until very recently would have looked to you. They’ve been doing what they can to make this new place “home”- and this goes beyond buying a desk lamp and putting extra-long twin sheets on their new bed. They’ve been building a community, and finding their place in it.
And if they’re doing well, chances are they have you to thank. You helped make college possible. You showed them that if they worked hard enough, they could get there. So give yourself some credit—but then listen to the rest of our news.
When your college freshman walks through your door for Thanksgiving break, their self-perceptions will likely be different from your perceptions of them. A college freshman has been in a living-learning community, and expected to function as an adult. Many college students also say “I am a different person at school.” Maybe at home your kid was known as absent-minded, or the nerd, or the jock. Your daughter might have reinvented herself at college; your son may be exploring a new identity. They might feel anxiety at being perceived as someone they no longer are.
After a few months away, living and studying in a new environment, their perceptions of you might have changed too. Maybe they'll tell you their professors are far wiser than you. We hope that you won’t take it personally, and that you will jot down some of their more priceless insights; they will make for great stories for when they bring home their future spouse, or for you to share when they are parents themselves.
More painfully, it’s possible that your freshman will now challenge some of the ideas and values that you used to share. Perhaps she’s discovered the works of Ayn Rand, to the dismay of her liberal cousin Emily. Perhaps he’s “feeling the Bern,” which saddens Uncle Jed, his staunch Republican godfather. Maybe they don’t want to go to church with you, or prefer to go to a different one, or are uncertain what they believe at all. You’d be amazed how quickly a student will discover and embrace new views and ideas. It can be jarring, but it’s also a sign that the college experience is everything it’s supposed to be: challenging, mind-expanding, and new. This doesn’t give anyone a free pass out of respectful dialogue; but it’s worth remembering that when we send our loved ones out into the world to study, we have no control over what ideas will resonate with them.
Your offspring might also be certain that their new lifestyle—up all night, living on cold pizza, driven by “FOMO” (fear of missing out), is brilliant. You might disagree. It is also likely to be inconsistent with the rules and norms of your household—and it still is your household, after all. The question of rules, boundaries, and expectations is perhaps the starkest example of the push and pull between your freshman’s two homes, lifestyles, roles, and worlds.
So, what do you do with this not-quite-stranger who’s soon coming to your home and one of her homes? First, before they come home, consider what rules and expectations you plan to set. Ask yourself whether the expectations you had for them before are needed now. Consider the changes in your offspring’s self-perception and experience with independence and act accordingly. Perhaps some things are non-negotiable to you—for example, going to church with you, or playing in the family Thanksgiving touch football game, or texting if they’re going to be late. Identify those non-negotiables in advance, but take a very hard look at the standards you set that have no relationship to the way your freshman has been living for three months (and if they come home apparently unscathed, that means they’re handling their new independence and responsibilities well—another success for which you laid the groundwork).
Have a frank conversation in which you acknowledge the challenge your freshman faces—that they’re pulled between two worlds, two homes, two sets of expectations, and even between two competing selves. Let them know you get it, regardless if you had a similar college experience. “This must be weird for you to be home. It’s weird for me too.”
Be honest about the expectations you plan to set, but make sure you listen to theirs. Maybe they’re concerned you don’t see how much they’ve grown as a person. They could be anxious about being on your turf (especially if the last time you saw them was on family weekend, when you were on their turf). Recognize that they may vacillate between excitement and anxiety about seeing their family and revisiting their high school friends and their hometown.
Our message is not that you need to suck it up and accept whatever comes. It’s that the college freshman coming through your door will experience this Thanksgiving visit not only as a homecoming but also as a home-leaving. When you recognize, acknowledge, and work through this together, you’re laying the groundwork for a better Thanksgiving and for a new phase in your parent-adult child relationship.
But they still have to clean up the Thanksgiving table. You can tell them Professors Brenner and Schwartz said so.
Professor Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD, co-authored this post.