Three wet towels on the floor. It sounds cliche, but if you’re a mom of a college student who has returned home, you know where I’m going with this.
I am so happy to have him home. I’ve been counting the days. I’ve tried to make the house the type of home that a college kid wants to live in again. I stocked the refrigerator with his favorite pizza; I refreshed the sheets in his old room.
Last night his ‘old’ high school friends came over. Everything felt right when I heard them laughing in the next room. My husband could see the joy on my face as I made some popcorn for the crew.
There need to be some ground rules for home. (Photo courtesy Heather Tierney)
His friends look slightly different now: more self-assured and comfortable in their skin. They are wiser, of course, after one year of school (cue my amused sarcasm). One has a full mustache now. I’m not sure if it suits him, but I get it. He is making a statement. My son bleached his hair. It’s something new. One of them got a tattoo.
It’s as it should be. They are adults now and want to ensure the world knows it. When they return to their hometown, they wish to send a message to their peers with whom they had spent the first 18 years of their lives: I’m different now.
I remember all of that from my college days. I remember having breakfast with my mom after my first semester, and she turned to me and said, “You seem older now.” It was exactly what I thought. It was why I walked with a new swagger in my ’90s overalls.
I recall a newfound confidence I’d attained that first year, one that came from the realization that the world was a whole lot bigger than it used to be, and I could now decide how I’d like to be part of it. I see that in my son, too, and I’m glad.
But back to the three wet towels.
It doesn’t seem like bathing requires that. And more confusingly, why does this person with a new, fresh feeling of adulthood resort back, suddenly, to old habits? The rule used to be that towels were not left on the floor.
What are the house rules now?
He needs to pick and hang them up. But they feel symbolic of something bigger, such as deciding whether we require a curfew during the summer, how often he can take the car, and how many hours he works weekly. Real issues need to be discussed, defined, and established — which are much more important than my bathroom floor.
I am so proud of this grown child who’s come home, of the man he’s become, and I want him to make his own choices. But I also know he is still young. And, at the moment, living in my home.
The rules, I realize, need to be reframed as expectations. Before I can articulate those expectations to him, I need to clarify them to myself. What is it I expect from him now? Does he come to his sister’s softball game? Does he text and let us know where he is? Is he still part of Friday movie night? These may seem like relatively small questions, but they point at something more significant: family commitment and the give-and-take of relationships.
This reminds me of my classroom and the students I’ve worked with. I’ve learned that when the school’s expectations are defined, the rules are obvious.
If the expectation, for example, is that we work until the bell rings, then the obvious rule is that we don’t line up by the door waiting for the bell. If the expectation is that we listen when someone is talking, then it goes without saying that we don’t have side conversations when someone has raised their hand to speak. The expectations set the tone. The tone establishes what is allowed.
As I watch my son resettle into this house that has been his home for 18 years, I realize now that the rules can be replaced with reminders of what our family values and allows. He has changed, yes — but we haven’t. We still value togetherness.
We value respecting each other enough to let others know where we are. And we value age-appropriate independence. We recognize that he is an adult now. We’ll remind him that an adult needs to communicate with others — whether he feels like it or not — and that an adult shows appreciation toward those who love him.
After all, college courses won’t likely teach him those lessons. The value of knowing how to respect, show up, and compromise with the ones you love will not be included in a syllabus.
That one is on us.
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