Back at home

Clarke and J.D. Nelson (center), back home from college, help their parents Doug and Michelle and younger brother Cary make dinner. (Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / June 28, 2005)

Somewhere between dispensing advice on everything from roommate relations to campus safety to shower shoe selection, the college guidebooks leave something out: Students inevitably have to return home, and it isn't always easy. In reality, vacation is not merely a time of relaxation, but one of transition for students and parents alike.

It's no surprise that some of the biggest break-time conflicts arise between parents and their freshly independent children. During breaks, students exchange the autonomy they enjoy in college for the watchful eye of mom and dad. Parents learn that the child they dropped off months ago has changed significantly and wants to be treated as an adult.

"It's a rude awakening," says Towson University student Theresa Fitzgerald, explaining that students go from "having complete freedom ... to all of a sudden having to arrange [their] schedule around parents and family."

Marjorie Savage, author of the college parenting guide "You're on Your Own (But I'm Here if You Need Me)" and director of the University of Minnesota's University Parent Program, says that differences between parents' and children's expectations for breaks are at the heart of such conflicts. "Students and parents both have high expectations [and] different expectations about how time should be spent," Savage says.

Savage explains that parents want their families to "slide back" to the normal, pre-college routine and tend to plan lots of activities, while students want to spend their time seeing their friends and, above all, relaxing.

Helen E. Johnson, author of "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money" and founder of HEJ Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in parent/college relations, echoes Savage's comments. "Parents need to realize when their child comes home it's going to be a big veg fest," she says, advising parents not to plan too much. Johnson says that she was "so eager and so disappointed" when her own son returned home from college, because she anticipated a lot of quality time with him, but he chose to spend it with his friends and on his own instead.

Other than rescheduling that trip to grandma's, be prepared for differences in the child as well. Those months of solo living and exposure to a myriad of new ideas and experiences alter college students quite a bit. "Students change a lot the first few weeks [of college] and want to show their family how they've changed," Savage says.

These changes can range anywhere from going vegan to trading in the Bush bumper sticker for a College Democrats button, and Savage recommends that parents should prepare for them in advance. "Ask, 'Are there any changes I should know about?'" before the student returns home, she suggests.

By far, the biggest adjustment stems from a student's feeling "adult" at school but coming home to the regulations of the 'rents. After living in relative freedom, being restricted with rules and curfews seems suffocating to most college students. "It's really different being back and having more rules," says Fitzgerald, the Towson student.

Johnson advises parents to accept their children's need for independence and let go of the role of control figure. "The healthiest relationship ... is a relationship in which a parent adopts the role of mentor," she says, adding that mentoring means acting as a "trusted advisor" who realizes his or her children are in need of guidance.

She and Savage suggest that parents should make expectations and rules known before their children return home and be realistic with them. "You can tell your child that those old curfews and rules may not sit, but that there are still expectations," Johnson says. "For example, 'It's not going to be good to come home at three in the morning.'"

Even if parents don't make explicit rules of the house, the pressure's still there. "There are not many more rules at home, and my parents are pretty laid back," Loyola College student Katie Haak says, but, "I feel obligated to come home earlier, knowing my parents will be up waiting for me."

For most college students, the lifestyle changes during break don't just end in the home, but they enter the social realm as well. Often, their level of socializing drops or is limited.

When living at school, students forge a new social group with people they don't just see frequently but with whom they live, work, eat and take classes. Since chances are these friends don't live around the corner, unless a student has amassed a formidable number of frequent-flyer miles, they're probably not going to see their school friends during break. They'll also lose the experience of having friends around them 24/7 and having socializing opportunities just footsteps away at any time.

"Unfortunately, most of my friends live out of state, so I come home and have almost no friends," Fitzgerald says. "There's so much more to do at school."

Haak has a similar experience. "A majority [of my friends] live out of state, so it's definitely less social during the summer" with "only people from high school left to socialize with," she says.

"When I'm at home, I read a book, watch TV, play video games, lie on my bed moping and not much else, since there are fewer people around," Swarthmore College student Aaron Hollander says.

Activities at home also empty a student's wallet faster than those at school. Most college and universities regularly sponsor student events that are either free or inexpensive or arrange events with outside attractions. But when at home, students have to pay for their own food and entertainment out of pocket if their parents don't supply them with extra cash.

"Campus activities are cheap or free, and are a great way to meet people," Fitzgerald says. "When you come home, everything costs more." She added that the price of gas adds an additional cost to any outings. Haak agreed and also said that events are easier to come by at college. "It's easier to find student-geared activities at school," she said.

Hollander also agreed but added that some activities, such as first-run movies and theater "are not available at school," thereby justifying the cost.

Students also have chunks of time cut out of their days by jobs and internships. This is an often necessary predicament. "I have to work more over the summer to save money so I don't have to work as much during the school year," Fitzgerald says.

Despite social and parental pressures, long breaks do have their perks, like seeing old friends, gaining much-needed privacy, landing that prized job or internship and just taking a break from all that college life entails.

If everyone approaches breaks with an open mind, they can live up to their designation as "vacations." As Fitzgerald says, simply put, "It's nice to come home and see everybody."