Why I Want My Son To Think Of College As “Home”

The first time it’s a kick in the teeth, the punch in the gut you never saw coming. You are feeling a little down as you watch your college kid prepare to return to school. He is packing and you are sitting on his bed or hovering by the door. You are trying to squeeze in the last few moments of real conversation. He is a teen and you will soon be placed on a diet of texts and occasional phone calls. It’s freshman year. You have been to this rodeo before and know that you will say goodbye and be alright. Your kid is excited…and then they say it…

When college becomes home for students.

[More on how to say goodbye to our college kids.]

“When I get back home…”

Inside your brain the words ricochet off the walls of your head. HOME. This is home.


College is not your home. College is not your family. There is no one there who raised you. No one there who has loved you for nearly two decades. That. Is. Not. Home.

But you say nothing, an act of superhuman self-control.

The first time one of my sons uttered these words I was struck speechless. I struggled to breathe smoothly and not betray the telltale sign that I was about to cry. For months he had told me that he didn’t love college, precisely because it did not feel like home. His high school friends, lifelong pals, were scattered on other campuses. The metronomic schedule of K-12 had been upended and he was often at a loss for how to spend his time. He did not remember a life without his brothers and yet for months on end he was away from them. He missed his dog. Dog = Home, a well established fact.

[More on How to Help Your College Freshman When They’re Homesick.]

And the place he was calling home…

Let’s be clear the place he was now calling “home” was a filthy, clothing strewn, beer bottle laden dorm room where he could no longer distinguish where his pile of garbage ended and his roommate’s began. It didn’t look great before they moved in, now it was horrendous. On my very worst days, at my most negligent, or when our life was in turmoil, our home never, ever, looked like that. Never smelled like that either

And yet, he refers to it as “home.”

As my surprise melted, I reminded myself to say nothing. Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshman at Stanford University once explained, “When you hear that resist the urge to argue the point. Your eyes will well with tears, but just hug them and say, ‘I am so glad that place is feeling like home to you.’

I can’t say I got there, but I talked myself down off the ledge.

Sure the place he was calling home was a dump and sure I would have qualms about sleeping in that bed with those sheets of dubious cleanliness. Yet it was his place and, frankly, no one was inviting me to spend the night.

As I stepped back from a moment of parental self-absorption I could see:

If college is home, he has found people that he cares about or maybe even loves.

If college is home, he has found comfort and a place where he can be himself.

If college is home, he feels accepted, maybe even embraced by people I hope will be his lifelong friends.

If college is home, he must like the food, even a little bit.

If college is home he must have found things that have captivated his interest, made him want to be right where he is.

If college is home, there is a familiarity with a place that was once new and unexplored.

If college is, he is more likely to stay there, graduate from there and find the path forward into his adult life.

This week I prepared to take another son back to college, after he too had uttered that double entendre “home.” I asked him if this home, the one where he learned to sleep in the dark, where he studied for 9th grade biology tests and where his dog still lives, felt like home as much as his college did. He smiled. He knows what I want him to say. He knows I will know if he is lying. Mom, he told me, home isn’t just one place, lots of places feel like home in our lives, even at the same time.


College Break: Choosing to Stay At School For the First Time

How to Stay Close to Your Family As You Grow Apart 

The 25 Things Every Kid Needs to Know Before Leaving Home

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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