College Kids: They're Ba'aaack

Entry in Messiest College Apartment contest, photo 2000/3/8
Like many parents, my wife and I have our college-age kids back home for the summer. While they were away, we missed them and were proud of their accomplishments. We beamed when we saw evidence of a newfound independence. We were pleased as they bravely tried new things. When we visited them at school, we could actually have a conversation with them without getting any snide remarks or rolling of the eyes. We marveled at the responsibility and maturity they demonstrated away from home. I just have one question: What happens to all that independence and maturity the second they walk back into our houses?

Away, they can figure out how to get around new and even foreign cities immediately. At home, there are times when they can't navigate the route from the couch to the ringing telephone. At school, they can read "War and Peace" in the original Russian, but at home, they can't seem to read "Help Wanted" in the window of the local Radio Shack. They can instantly see the solutions to difficult mathematical problems, but they can't see those dirty clothes that they step over on their way out of the house. In the dorm, they're able to share the tiniest living quarters, but they feel their space is constantly being invaded in a three-bedroom house.

For months, they're able to feed themselves, do their laundry, make appointments, and pay their bills. By the third day they're home, we're doing these things for them. Why? Do colleges offer a secret course called, "How To Get Away With As Much As Possible During The Summer?" Or maybe they act this way because they feel sorry for us, and want us to still feel needed. Nah, that can't be it.

I tried to look at this from college kids' point of view. (Of course, I couldn't use that point of view until after noon.) First of all, parents also regress during the summer. Often they just automatically go back to doing things for their kids. And if we offer to make their breakfast, do their laundry, or make phone calls for them, they're not going to say, "No, thanks, you just relax. I prefer to do all that myself."

And let's remember that they've been completely on their own for months, and suddenly we're asking them questions like, "How did you sleep?" "Is something wrong today?" "You call that a breakfast?" When they were away, somehow without our questioning, they managed to eat, sleep, and get through the day.

It's also time to expose an ugly parental secret: Sometimes we'll say anything in the hope of getting them to talk to us. Admit it. When they're reading a book, we might say something brilliant like, "Good book?" There are times when I'll walk into the room, see them watching TV, and ask, "What are you watching?" Couldn't I wait a couple of seconds and try to figure out on my own what they're watching? Besides, why should I care what they're watching and why should they have to tell me? So, are some of those snide remarks and rolling eyes really that big a mystery?

So I'm not blaming kids or parents. It's one of those no-fault things like when a tornado picks up two parked cars from different parts of town and then smashes them into each other. The summer is just an adjustment for everybody, and parents and kids are going to get on each other's nerves. Nobody should feel guilty if every once in a while they find themselves looking forward to when they're going to miss their kids in the fall. You can bet they're looking forward to missing us, too.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver