I know I’m not the only one. In the midst of all the dorm drop-off and video-chat-with-the-dog stories, I’m here. With two college students living at home. There are lots of good reasons for this—a really terrific program at a local college for one kid, two years of free community college from the state for both, and a chance to major in “I Changed My Mind” without going broke. But it means they’re here, not away, and I have a front-row seat to their young adult lives.
It’s a weird time. Everyone is legally an adult in my somewhat chaotic house. But my husband and I are still paying the bills and trying to have some semblance of order. I’m in my third year of at-home college students, and here’s what I’ve learned.
When College Kids Live at Home
1. Let It Go.
When my oldest started college, my youngest was still in high school, and I was still in full-on Mom mode. Trying to take care of everything—getting involved in class selection for my son, trying to help with registration, informational meetings on campus, exploring majors.
Mom, stop it. Just stop.
What I wish I’d done instead is point out some stuff and back off. Back all the way off. Ask—do you want help here? Let him set his own schedule (he can do it). Let him sign up for his own classes (he can do it). My youngest is getting more of my hands-off treatment than her brother got. Let it go.
2. Give Up on the Dinners.
When I was still trying to have regular family dinners, it actually caused more strife than it was worth. I had to face it, our house is like an ant hill most days with two parents working full-time, two young adults going to school full time (and working in summers), and the kids’ friends in and out.
The stars don’t align for family dinners very often. What we do instead is make double batches of everything, and make sure there’s a fridge full of (fairly recent and edible) leftovers. I also have a freezer full of heat-and-eat food from Costco.
We still talk. We still have conversations. About once a week a miracle occurs and we all sit at the table at the same time. I appreciate it when it happens, but I assume it won’t. The kids are learning to cook too, so they can contribute to the weekly leftover brigade. My husband and I have dinners together, and the kids come and go as their schedules dictate. See rule #1. Let it go.
3. Give Up on Knowing Where They Are.
I’m trying to think of my kids as housemates, not kids. They have their own lives. I know their schedules, roughly. But they also have their own social lives, and random friends (they’re good kids—I know their moms!) flow in and out of my house. I don’t know when they’ll be home. I don’t know who’s coming for dinner. If we don’t have enough of whatever I cooked, there’s pizza in the freezer.
If they were away at school, they wouldn’t be checking in with me. If they were actually my housemates, I wouldn’t be checking in on them. I think back to my own college years in the 80s when I talked to my parents once a week on the phone and sent occasional letters (remember those?). I do ask for a phone call or text if they’re going to be out all night. I turned off the phone tracking after high school. See rule #1. Let it go.
4. Give Up on their Rooms.
Seriously. Give it up. Occasionally a kid will get tired of the mess and actually ask me for help, and I’m happy to help out. We try to keep the public areas of the house picked up, and sometimes we’re successful. But if they haven’t learned how to pick up their rooms by age eighteen, that’s on them. Sorry, I’m a defective mom, but so be it. See rule #1. Let it go.
5. Yes, Drinking Happens.
The oldest is twenty-one. He’s legal. He and his friends (who are also all legal) drink at each other’s houses, and sometimes at our house. They’re responsible. They spend their own money on their terrible beverages that I wouldn’t touch. They know to keep their hands off my husband’s scotch and my wine.
They’re being safe and I trust them—no driving, ever. Their friends sleep over on couches or floors when they need to. The “duffle pub” (their combined collection of horrible hooch packed in a duffle bag) travels from place to place. They clean up after themselves. See rule #1. Let it go.
6. Chores are Still a Thing.
At this point, my main job is to teach my kids to be good roommates or housemates. That means pitching in with the stuff that needs to be done around the house. Dishes, shopping, some cooking, keeping their own stuff picked up or confined to their rooms. Doing their own laundry means actually doing it, not leaving it in the washer to mildew for days. Taking the trash out means actually doing it, not having to chase the garbage truck down the street at 6:00 a.m. Rule #1 does not apply here. I’m not letting this one go.
7. Follow the Money.
While I’m trying to be hands-off in a lot of ways, I’m also trying to help my kids work on the life skills they need. Keeping track of money, saving money, figuring out where money goes—it’s an ongoing task for me and now for them. It’s not always straightforward and it’s never fun, but it’s part of adult life. We try to check in once a week or so to talk about money. Where it’s going, who spent what, who owes what to whom, and so on. Nope, no rule #1 here either. Not letting this one go.
8. Insist They Work or Volunteer in the Summer.
Summers are for work. If they can’t get a job, volunteer. There are lots of volunteer opportunities close by. My oldest has had several different jobs. My younger one didn’t get summer jobs in the past due to various commitments and family vacations, but she now has a full resume of volunteer work for the last three years that is helping her to get a paid job this year.
We also have clear understandings of where the summer earnings go (saved for pocket money during the school year and other expenses). Summers are distinctly not for playing all day, every day, or for watching endless YouTube videos in one’s pajamas, or for spending all one’s summer earnings on junk. Rule #1 doesn’t apply here either. I’m not letting this one go.
9. Get Out of the Transportation Business.
One is a driver. One doesn’t drive and is a master of her bike and public transit. Our high school “kids car” died and we’re not replacing it (we’ll worry about the non-driver when she gets her license). The driver bought his own car, and will maintain it, and that’s his thing. Part of adulthood. We do an occasional ride (with advance warning) for times and places that the bus doesn’t serve. But Mom and Dad are, for the most part, no one’s Uber any more. See rule #1. Let it go.
10. Do Your Own Thing.
It’s still too easy for me to step into my very familiar role of ringleader, organizer, and keeper of the family calendar and bullhorn. But that’s not what I need to do. They both have pencils and know how to write their own appointments on the family calendar—or not. I’ve signed up for a music class and joined a friend’s pub trivia team. My husband and I get together with friends for games. We go out to dinner with friends. We have friends over. We have our lives too and we work hard to protect them. See rule #1. Let it go.
11. Go Away.
My husband and I are starting to go on short trips without the kids. It’s too complicated to coordinate everyone’s schedule, and it’s kind of amazing to go away on our own and remember that we actually like to hang out together. It doesn’t have to be expensive—for us, sometimes it’s camping trips. The kids survive at home, the dog gets fed, and it’s all OK. We still go away as a family, but less often.
This rule also applies on a small scale. In the mornings when everyone’s running around, finding their stuff, and jetting out the door? I’m out walking the dog. Not at home finding lost items. See rule #1. Let it go.
12. Figure Out Where You’re Needed.
I still hang out and watch episodes of Queer Eye with my youngest. My husband still plays video games and goes skiing with our oldest. I’m helping the youngest navigate through her decision process of where to go after community college and plan visits to four-year schools. I’m helping her learn how to make doctor and dental appointments for herself (we do it together for now, on speaker phone). We helped our oldest do his taxes. Sometimes I need to step in, but almost always it’s witha kid and not fora kid—so they learn to do the thing for themselves.
It’s kind of crazy here. Who am I kidding? It’s a lot crazy. It’s hard for me to step away from the roles I’ve played since they were born—keeper of everything, organizer of everything, and knower of everything—and realize that my role now is to notdo all that, even though they’re both still here. See rule #1. Let it go.
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Tina Sansom Ricks is a legal editor, wife, and parent of two college students. When she’s not writing, she is walking her neurotic Labrador mutt. She lives with her family in Beaverton, Oregon.