Even though it seems like only yesterday we were moving into our residence halls, starting classes and telling everyone about our awesome summer vacations, take a look outside. Where'd the sun go? This can only mean one thing -- the fall semester is flying by and it's almost time for finals and our winter holiday vacation. Winter break means one thing for most students: reintegrating with parents and family under one roof for an extended period of time.
For some, family time is as joyous as one of those old holiday movies, with festive gatherings and big steaming piles of delicious food. For others, though, it is not all that exciting to return home. It's hard to give accurate advice for everyone, but there are a few things to keep in mind, whether dealing with family or friends, which might make the trip home a bit more pleasant for you this year.
Let your parents know about plans with friends beforehand. They would like to know how much they should expect to see you, and it'd be helpful to know when they have to cook for you (and guests). Your plans may also interfere with an existing appointment or plans with the family.
Expect and accept changes. Many college students have been dismayed to find that their bedroom has been converted to "woman's cave" craft room or a giant storage closet. It may be frustrating that your full bed was replaced by a daybed, but relax. What can feel like a loud-and-clear "glad they're gone" message can often be your parents' way of saying, "We miss you, and it's too hard to look at your room the way it was."
Reconsider that long-distance relationship. It's hard to let high school sweethearts go, but reassess your relationship: How much have you actually got to see each other? Has traveling home every weekend got in the way of forming relationships and getting involved at college? Have you had jealousy issues or grew more suspicious of your significant other because of your time apart? Are they really right for you or do you want to see what else is out there? This doesn't have to be a, "It's not you, it's me" thing. Usually this is a mature mutual decision to let each other live and have the full college experience. Embrace the suggestion, and if you can manage, try and keep in touch.
Plan a trip. Many colleges offer trips over vacations to avoid missing classes. Last year a group of Champlain College students from Burlington, VT traveled to Beijing over Thanksgiving break to return with just enough time to miss the stress of holiday preparations but still see family and friends, complete with a handful of stories to tell! Although a school-sponsored trip is not necessarily an option for this fast approaching break, maybe plan a day trip with family or friends to check out holiday decorations in the city, or take a ski trip to a nearby mountain.
Let them parent you a little. Visits home can quickly devolve into a power struggle. It can feel pretty weird having Mom check on your whereabouts at 2am after you've been keeping your own schedule for the past few months. If you'd really like to ensure domestic tranquility, do some chores and take some criticism. Your late-night freedom may depend on it.
Don't forget to prepare. Although the fall semester has come to a close, your spring semester classes probably require course materials such as textbooks and supplies. Before buying books for full-price, ask peers who have taken the course already if the book is essential and if you can buy it used from them for a fraction of the cost. Champlain College has a book exchange page on Facebook where students post used books wanted, for sale, or to exchange. Also, consider renting books if you know you won't want to keep them.
Really listen. Being treated like an adult happens more naturally if you treat others how you'd like to be treated. Show some respect, have mature conversations and listen with an open heart. You'll be surprised at what you may learn, and even catch yourself sharing new insights acquired at college.
Talk a lot about school. Parents and other stakeholders in your education love to celebrate the recent success of their child's newfound independence at college. They want to know that they've made a good investment. Before the semester comes to a close, do some things that would make them proud, retain some information learned in class, and read up on a lot of current events so you can have some intellectual conversations.
Decide on some boundaries, and stick to them. There are times when compromise is a good, relationship-enhancing skill, but there are other times when you need to let others at home know they've gone too far. Take some things with a grain of salt, but stay true to yourself when it comes to your values. Stand up for your choice of study, and tell them all the valuable things that you've learned.
Explain to your friends that you need to spend time with family too - it is the holidays after all. The week will fly by fast; there is so much to do and so little time. Try to have a small get together or go out to dinner with a group to see many people at once. The more the merrier! Plus, the more input there is, the more funny stories you may recall from the past couple months away at school.
Say thank you's. More people than just your parents deserve to hear "thank you" for getting you to where you are today. Let them all know how much you appreciate it and spend some time answering the inevitable question, "How's school?" Stop by your high school if it's open to thank some exceptional teachers and guidance counselors, or send some thank you holiday cards. Don't limit yourself to just family and friends over break.
Remember that change takes time. Your relationship with your family goes through significant changes during your college years. Whether this separation and gain of independence has brought good changes or taken a toll on your relationship, take a deep breath, pass the sweet potato casserole to your right, and be open to whatever is coming next.
Carpool. If you have a long commute, ask around for a ride home from friends you know live nearby. It's not inconvenient if you throw them some gas money or offer them good conversations to keep them awake on their long drive home. Plus it can save your loved ones a long round-trip. If this isn't an option, consider booking a Megabus, an affordable coach that goes from Burlington to Boston, Hartford, NYC, and various other cities in the northeast.
When it comes to parenting college students, any time when they come home can be an emotional one, particularly when expectations collide. You imagined many conversations with your college student about how classes are going and new friends, going out to fulfill family traditions from their childhood, and spending lots of time alone with them. He or she imagined sleeping away the stress of midterms, hanging with high school friends until 2 am, and oh yeah, there's this giant sack of dirty laundry and lots of home cooked meals to be consumed.
Here are some tips to make that winter vacation a little less chaotic:
Plan travel arrangements well ahead of time. Book plane tickets early and encourage your child to line up his ride to the airport and allow plenty of time to get through security. If you're planning to pick up your child on campus instead, allow a little extra time and have patience. More often than not, your child will still be packing when you arrive, and will have a mountain of dirty laundry that they expect you to do "for free" at home. Plan extra time to stop in the bookstore to pick up some "proud parent" souvenirs, and encourage your child to give you a tour of their new home. On the way, expect many "See you next year!" good-byes. Don't forget to pack water and snacks for the road, but also throw in a blanket and pillow just in case. If you're lucky, you may end up using them when they decide they miss driving.
Make an agenda. Check in with your child before they return home and find out what plans he may have already made. Let him know about any family commitments on the calendar but understand that he needs time to see his friends too -- they have a lot of catching up to do. Also, schedule any necessary doctor, dentist, or hairdressing appointments ahead of time.
Reinforce the importance of responsible living. Make sure your child is on track with eating, sleeping and study habits. Remind them of the counseling services available for free on their campus, and stay up-to-date on their well-being. If your child was an active athlete in high school, see if they've gotten their fix of exercise on campus and emphasize that they try and do so. This goes for involvement in other clubs and organizations, too. Also, this break is a time to bring up a conversation about responsible extracurricular activities -- a good time for this is after they ask for that glass of wine with dinner for the first time.
Reassert your role as a mentor. As a friend, fan, and in most cases, financier, you remain equally well positioned to hold significant influence over your child. Remote as you may be when your child is away at school, the lessons you impart still stand as the primary voice of reason in their lives. If you stand boldly during their first long break from college, you will help them return with the loving lessons they need to succeed at school.
Expect major changes on your end, too. Your child will have grown a great deal since they left you, mentally and/or physically. It's a good idea to check if your child has become a vegetarian before you carve the Christmas ham. Similarly, address the family beforehand if your child has made any drastic changes to their appearance. Also, if you've made any major changes, especially to their old room, let them know before their arrival to avoid confrontations.
Stock the kitchen. Ask your child what meals he expects when he is home. Make sure to get all the ingredients for them as well as his favorite snacks. Consider there may be unexpected guests at the house from time to time, too.
Reexamine house rules and curfews. Your child has had complete freedom at college to go where he wanted, when he wanted, and no one waited up. Enforcing a curfew at home may not only be impossible, it also sends an unsettling message that you have so little faith in his ability to take care of himself. Think about alternative ways you could word things to avoid your child's retaliation. For example, if you are worried about an exhausted teen driving in the middle of the night, ask that the car be home by a specific time. If you just want to know that he's safe, discuss what time he plans to be home and ask that he call or text you if there's a change in plans.
Let them sleep. Expect your child to do a lot of sleeping. Between the intense studying, dorm social life and his own sleeping habits, his sleeping schedule will have changed dramatically. He's not lazy when he sleeps till noon the first few days of break -- he's exhausted.
Bring them shopping. Your child probably brought his entire collection of dirty laundry home -- and he will love it if you offer to help, especially if he has run out of detergent or quarters for the dorm dryer. But this is a good time to help him restock other essentials too, including toiletries, snacks and cleaning supplies. Don't forget it's getting cold up here in New England, so warm socks, new outerwear, and boots may be great options for the upcoming gift-giving holidays.
Don't stop now. While some students can't wait to start a new semester at college after winter vacation, others still haven't quite acclimated to campus life. They may have battled homesickness or wept over faraway high school sweethearts. After a few weeks nestled with family and old friends, eating their favorite foods and having someone else do their laundry, they may not want to go back to college. Offer love and reassurance, and hopefully they'll make the right decision.
So have a lovely holiday season, everyone!