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Many parents of college students are eagerly counting the days until winter break and looking forward to some quality family time. It can be easy to forget that their grown kids will be home for a whole month or more with little to do other than raid the refrigerator, and that their presence (and late nights) can disrupt the daily lives of working parents and younger siblings.
With a little forethought and honest conversation, though, parents really can score the family holiday time of their dreams. Here are some tips, from parents of college kids who have been there, done that.
1. Prepare yourself. Over Thanksgiving break, you may have gotten a taste of what is to come later this month. Many college kids tend to sleep all morning, then run off with their high school friends and disrupt the rest of the household with late-night comings and goings. Sharon Greenthal, the mother of a 24- and 26-year-old and a writer at Empty House Full Mind, offers this suggestion: “Don't change your routine or plans while your college student is home for the long winter break. While you may think you need to be available to them at the drop of a hat, it's important that you keep your life going the way it does when they are at school."
2. Agree on some rules. Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” suggests that parents sit down for a frank discussion with their college kids shortly after they arrive home. If there are family rules — about underage drinking, for example — Lythcott-Haims says parents can tell their kids, “‘I know that you have been having a lot of freedom and independence in college. When you are back here under our roof, though, the rules we had in place still apply. You are under 21 and you are not allowed to drink.’ Parents get to articulate their own values while acknowledging that this may chafe at their kid who has had unbridled freedom.”
3. Help kids set some goals. College kids may be looking forward to a month of Internet shopping and video-game playing, but parents can help set other expectations as well. The long break is an excellent time to work on resumes and cover letters and to look for a summer or full-time job. It’s also an opportunity to get a jump on reading or other academic work for the spring semester. Bored college kids can be enlisted in projects around the house as they may have few family responsibilities during the school year.
4. Make time for family. For many, Thanksgiving was a whirlwind of company and friends and chaos — and it might have been hard for your family to have enough time to spend alone. Although this break will be much longer, the same thing can happen again without some planning. Lythcott-Haims offers this suggestion: “Say to your kids, straight up without guilt or too much emotion, ‘It is so good to have you home, we cannot wait to hear about college and how you are doing. We know you have friends to see and sleep to catch up on, but here is what we want from you: Some time together. So let’s plan that.’ Parents should know what they want, ask for it and let that be enough.”
5. Encourage kids to earn some money. College is expensive. Although this break isn’t like the long summer lull, it can still provide a chance for college students to get out of the house and earn some cash. Babysitting, house watching, filling in some shifts at last summer’s job are opportunities to earn some spending money for the spring semester.
6. Accomplish key tasks. Although it will mean getting out of their pajamas, your kids can use the long winter break to get many necessary things done. There is nothing college kids like less than spending their school break going to the dentist or doctor or getting their passports or driver's licenses renewed. But if they don’t do it now, it won’t get done during the busy school year.
7. Take a family vacation if it is in your budget. Winter break is the one time that siblings on different school schedules can almost be assured to be in one place at one time. Even a brief overnight or weekend trip is a chance to step back into that family cocoon and reconnect with each other without all of the distractions of busy lives.
8. Remember that respect and communication run both ways. Most parents agree that the key to a successful holiday break is mutual communication and respect. College kids who text their parents when they will be late and don’t treat their family homes like their dorms (with the erratic hours and mess that entails) are more likely to find their parents willing to treat them as adults.