Eric Goldman returned to his suburban Philadelphia home from his New England college as a junior-to-be. The summer following his freshman year had been a bit rocky for his parents, Carol and Jeff (all names have been changed) as newfound collegiate ways presented problems of independence/autonomy vs. the old ways, back at the homestead.
But by the end of their son's sophomore year, his parents hoped life would normalize. Eric had a good job at a local day camp, he'd had a successful second year of college, and it looked like smooth sailing.
Then all hell broke loose. Eric invited his campus girlfriend to spend a long weekend with the family. Nice plan.
Mom tidied up the guest room, found the best towels for the guest bathroom, and made sure there were fresh flowers and a few magazines at the ready.
"What are you doing?" Eric demanded when he saw the household preparations. "Valerie will be in my room … with me."
Say what? Cohabiting in his parents' household with his younger brother in the next room? Sex under their own roof?
"It was outright war," said Jeff Goldman, who regards himself as "an enlightened dad," in his own words. "I'm a modern guy, but no kid of mine is going to sleep with his girlfriend in my house."
Mom was a bit less upset, although admittedly uncomfortable. "Eric is a good kid, and we've always taught him to be respectful of girls," said Carol. "But we also expect him to be respectful of us, and of our sensitivities."
"It's a rare parent who wants to witness a son or daughter emerging sleepy-eyed and disheveled from down the hall, with a partner in tow," suggested writer Kate Stone Lombardi in a recent "Generations" column in The New York Times. "And let's not even talk about what may be heard through the walls."
At the last minute, Valerie's visit was almost cancelled because of Eric's insistence that his parents were being hypocrites. "You know that she stays over in my apartment at school," he said, reminding them of the officially unspoken but unofficially acknowledged fact that Valerie had been known to answer the phone at odd hours, day and night, and was clearly not gone at the stroke of midnight.
After a few stormy hours, however, the Goldmans came to an agreement: Valerie would occupy the guest room this time. The family would discuss other options when and if she returned for the High Holidays.
"I think my parents were definitely wrong in the way they reacted," said Eric, a thoughtful and articulate young man who still maintains that college has changed the basic rules: "I'm on my own, I make my own decisions, and I believe in honesty," he said. "But I love my parents, and I saw that this was really difficult for them, especially because of my little brother."
So what are parents to do when the kids they sent off to those ivy-covered quads return home demanding what they regard as their inalienable rights? Aside from sharing space with girlfriends/boyfriends, what's the new dynamic really all about?
"College kids who return home in the summer expect to be able to abide by the same rules of independence they enjoyed at school," noted Kim Fendrick, a Haddonfield, N.J., therapist who treats individuals and families in her private practice.
"But the parents themselves haven't been on that journey, and they tend to see their children in the same light they used to see them — as their kids," said Fendrick.
Still, there are some basics that should be brought to the fore, believes this veteran therapist. "It is, after all, the parents' home to which the college kids return, so the parents' rules, values and morality apply, with some minor adjustments here and there. Ironically, often the best relationships between parents and children prior to high school graduation become grounds for conflict when college begins."
Life is changing drastically for the student, as the experts often note. "Curfews, doing laundry, cohabiting, food habits, sleep schedules — all undergo dramatic changes for the college student. And that's as it should be," suggested Fendrick.
That leap into independence also makes returning to mom and dad's rules feel, as one young lady returning from Cornell put it, "insulting and offensive."
Fendrick responds: "Yes, the young adults may start feeling that they're not being given respect for their accomplishments, their wisdom, their social and intellectual growth, so the terrain gets a little bumpy."
Some advice for both sides in these domestic conflicts, suggests dad Jeff Goldman, with the insight of brief hindsight:
"We should have seen this coming, and talked to Eric about it way in advance. But I think that in some ways, Carol and I were in denial. It's hard to see your kid grow up and it's a bit uncomfortable to think of him having sex with his girlfriend in his old bedroom."
Carol Goldman wishes her son had been less volatile in his reactions. "I saw a very different side of Eric that surprised me, and made me wonder whether he's changed in basic ways. But I think it was just his way of asserting who he is now."
And from therapist Kim Fendrick comes this wisdom:
"Parents really do need to acknowledge that their returning son or daughter is changed by his/her life experience. It's not the same kid who left after high school graduation."
But Fendrick issues this bottom line: "Parents who still provide food and shelter and basic needs for a young adult child can still issue the rules, responsibilities and expectations that apply under their own roof. We live by the rules of the hand that feeds us."