My Son the House Guest


Elkins Park, Pennsylvania -- College students have begu XTC returning home for the summer. As parents, we eagerly anticipate this three-month return to the roost. At last, an opportunity to reacquaint our children with our financial realities and to improve their table manners. If we are very patient, we may even find the perfect moment to share our profound insights about safe sex.

Unfortunately, some parents have discovered that the cozy family reunion doesn't always live up to their expectations. And expectations, ours versus our kids', is really the crux of the matter.

When kids come home from college, they think they're on vacation. People who come to your house on vacation are called guests. Where there's a guest, there's got to be a host. Parents, on the other hand, think that children who temporarily rejoin the fold are family members. We don' stand on ceremony. We expect everyone to assume the old roles.

When I shared this revelation with my son, he agreed completely and pointed out that the guest role was not only more desirable but also well deserved.

He has a point. During the school year my son carries a full academic load and works 20 hours a week. He shares an apartment with a roommate and does his share of grocery shopping, cooking, even cleaning should that become necessary. He negotiates with the landlord when the heat doesn't work and has developed a rudimentary knowledge of plumbing sufficient to stem overflow problems. His life is no bed of beer parties. I can't blame him for wanting to be on vacation when he comes home. He deserves a vacation and I'd be crushed if he chose to spend it somewhere else.

I decided to analyze this guest/family member dichotomy by comparing my son's visits to my Aunt Gladys' visits. Yes, Aunt Gladys is a family member, but we never lived together in the same house so it doesn't count. In fact, I consider Aunt Gladys an ideal guest.

When Aunt Gladys is coming to visit we make our plans well in advance. My son feels free to drop in anytime. I mean this is "home" isn't it? Aunt Gladys usually brings a little house gift. My son never comes empty-handed either, He brings plenty of dirty laundry.

Aunt Gladys makes her bed and straightens up the room every morning. My son leaves wet towels on the bedroom rug and keeps the window blinds closed all day. By the time he leaves, the plants are in a severe decline.

The purpose of a visit from Aunt Gladys is to see us, so she tends to keep our schedule. My son has a hard time acclimating to early hours. Sometimes those neighborhood kids are outside making happy squealing noises at outrageous hours, like 9 a.m.

Then again, if Aunt Gladys gets up late, our only concern is whether she had trouble sleeping. We don't shake our heads in disbelief as she comes down the stairs and make condescending remarks about "our little sleepyhead."

Aunt Gladys usually hangs around the house with us when she's visiting. But if she decided to venture out on her own and returned late, we wouldn't say "Where the hell have you been? Couldn't you at least have the decency to call? Can't you respect our time just a little?" That's family behavior that you save for those you love most. We'd just be relieved to see Aunt Gladys and we'd express polite concern about her safety. No cracks about the scarcity of phone booths.

Just when I was beginning to think that being a guest has all the advantages, my son came into the kitchen and announced that he was going to the mall. His father reached reflexively into his pocket and handed him a twenty. "You might want to have lunch," Dad said.

"Aha," I said, "We don't give guests lunch money when they go shopping. If you were, say, Aunt Gladys we wouldn't be reaching in our pockets. Are you sure you're not a family member in disguise?"

I think the solution is to be part guest/host, part family members. For the first three days, I'll make the special meals, pick up the underwear, fill the gas tank, whisper until noon and periodically look up, smile and ask, "Is there anything else I can do?" But after three days, which is about how long Aunt Gladys stays, it's time to become family again.

So, kiddo, we're working on day four here. I'd like to introduce you to the dishwasher -- the ideal spot for the dirty dishes, not to be confused with the dirty socks that are tucked under the couch in the living room. And when you go out, don't forget the garbage.

Patricia F. Kohn is a free-lance contributor.

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