Successful parenting isn’t about getting our kids to college — it’s about what happens when they come back home. That is the one useful message I took away from “The Return of the Natives”, Jan Hoffman’s New York Times article about distant and disrespectful young adults spending their first college winter breaks with their parents.
“Your student, who will arrive home a wrung-out, post-finals mess, will be sleep-deprived, laundry-laden and with four to six weeks to drive everyone, themselves included, crazy”, asserts Hoffman. She goes on to share discouraging anecdotes of parents who “couldn’t survive 4 weeks” in the company of children they barely recognize (after spending just a few months at college) and quite obviously don’t enjoy.
How depressing is that?
The parents profiled in the article seem destined to become the tiresome in-laws, the grandparents whose children and children’s children would prefer to avoid them at holidays, the aging parents to whom their children feel less and less connected. Rather than “absence making the heart grow fonder,” these families have become strangers in just a few short months, which makes one question the quality, authenticity and focus of their 18-year relationship before college. Were they always this miserable together?
After first wondering “who are these people?” I realized it didn’t really matter. I was more annoyed that the author would portray these scenarios as the norm when they couldn’t be more different from my own experience. Parents of young ones should know: this is not the way it has to be.
Granted, it’s easy to lose our way when our success-driven society doesn’t encourage (or really even recognize) our number one duty as parents: forging a relationship with our child that is grounded in trust, acceptance and respect. But if we can let go of all other parenting agendas and keep striving for these ideals, my experience says we’ll count the days until our college student returns home, savor the precious time together, and burst with pride and gratitude for the extraordinary child we’ve raised.
Here are some key ways to foster a positive and lasting parent/child relationship and avoid the situations presented in “The Return of the Natives”:
1. Stop “doing”and start discovering your child
There’s a pervasive attitude in our culture that children can’t do anything unless we show or do it for them. We’re encouraged to interact with our children as if they are our most important projects rather than uniquely gifted, whole people who will mature and evolve in their own way. The well-intentioned meddling that we might believe to be our job only teaches our children deep down that they really don’t satisfy us. The rift and discomfort begins.
How does it happen? Well, we might begin directing our child’s development in small, innocent ways like assuming (or fearing) that our baby won’t get “tummy time” unless we make that happen as soon as possible, so we never have the opportunity to understand or appreciate our infant’s individual process and accomplishment. We might also assume we should hand our baby toys because she needs to practice grasping, and immediately thereafter insist she must give it to another baby and “share”. We prop her so she’ll learn to sit; slide her down the slide to teach her how to have fun; coax her to sit still for a story or learn to count even though she shows no interest.
Our best intentions (and well-meaning outside influences) lead us to make all the choices for our kids because we don’t believe them capable of making good choices for themselves (or even choosing at all). And the more we do, the less we really see our child.
If this dynamic continues, our children eventually become accustomed to being directed and urged forward, and in the process stop trusting the voice within and lose touch with themselves. It can become increasingly difficult for them to discern the difference between their interests and our wishes for them.
Jump ahead 18 years… They’ve been out in the world for a few months with no one directing or second-guessing their every move, been given a little room to grow. No doubt, it’s exhilarating, and they discover things about themselves they never knew. But then they come home from college, and the dynamic is the same as it ever was. They’re strangers to their parents and — to a great extent — strangers to themselves.
One of Hoffman’s families finally resolves their awkwardness by continuing to direct their boys as they’d obviously always done: “Ever since their sons’ freshman winter breaks the Summers have insisted that the boys volunteer or work during subsequent breaks to keep a schedule.”
Um… so, these young adults have no interests of their own to pursue? At what point will they be allowed to take ownership of their lives?
2. Be curious, pay attention and accept.
So, instead of working so hard to engineer our child’s development, doubting him or her (and ourselves), we can begin a more rewarding parenting journey by realizing that we do not make our children what they will become — we only facilitate the development of what’s inevitable. Where our power does lie is in ensuring our children feel self-confident and connected to us. Acceptance is the key. Rather than focusing our work on the successful image we might have for our children, we’re advised to take a good long look (around 18 + years’ worth) at the perfectly imperfect child we have and make it our job to appreciate her “as is”.
Later, acceptance means letting our kids be the ones to choose to play baseball, tuba, have a rock collection or none of the above and understanding that exposing our child to ballet means reading “Angelina Ballerina” or peeking through the window as we amble past a ballet class in session. It doesn’t mean signing our child up for eight weeks (or even two), because for our bright, aware child that implies we believe he should be enjoying ballet dancing right about now…and be pretty good at it, too. But this ballet class has nothing to do with our child – it’s about us.
Which reminds me of the bizarre assumption (made repeatedly in “The Return of the Natives”) that parents won’t recognize their children after their first months at college. Preposterous!
True, as with any type of transition, moving back entails some logistical adjustments. And certainly our child will return from her first months at college with new and exciting things to share. But not recognizing the kids we’ve been observing and accepting since birth? It’s a most absurd notion. Unless, of course, we’ve been confusing ourselves with our child all along.
Can trust be said enough times? Trust should be our mantra. It is the secret to the most successful parenting and also the secret to enjoying it. Trust in our child, along with the magic word “wait”, help us to stay our course when friends, family, and unenlightened professionals imply that we’re not doing enough, and/or our child isn’t keeping up. Trust will remind us to let go of personal expectations for our child and to instead recognize and support the expectations she has for herself. Trust, trust, trust. It will never lead us astray.
4. Even discipline is about trust (not fear).
We need to step up and give our children the boundaries they need, but trust must always be our guide if we want to foster healthy self-discipline that also strengthens our parent-child bond. This means being gentle, strong leaders who are always on our child’s team offering unconditional love and respect.
This “mentoring” approach inspires children to internalize our values. They don’t like it when we say no, but because we are kind, fair and empathetic their admiration and love for us only grows. Later, our role naturally evolves from being a trusted leader to our adult child’s intimate friend.
But if we use punishments, threats, manipulation, tricks and distraction to try to control behavior, mutual disrespect develops. We foster an us-against-them relationship with our children that is likely to continue. This scenario from the “The Return of the Natives” illustrates: “For winter break, [the parents] wrote a contract for her and a friend who would be visiting: Sunday through Thursday curfew, 11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 12:30 a.m. First infraction? The friend finds other lodging. Second infraction? Daughter loses car for remainder of break. Third infraction? Daughter loses car for the semester.”
Sound like fun?
5. And finally — fall in love
It’s a teacher’s job to find something to appreciate about each of their students. It’s a parent’s job to fall crazy in love with his or her child. Not the child you wish you had, or wish you were, or wish you could help your child to be, but like Stephen Stills sang, “the one you’re with.” Then your reunions will be giddy and your child will always want to come home, but won’t really need to…because home will mean you and be forever embedded in your child’s heart.
Please let me grow as I be,
And try to understand why I want to grow like me,
Not like my mother wants to me to be,
Not like my father hopes I’ll be,
Or like my teacher thinks I should be,
Please understand and help me grow
Just like ME!
I share more advice for building positive relationships with our children in
(Photo by brunifia on Flickr )