College students may seem like strangers at home

January 01, 1994|By Lori Eickmann | Lori Eickmann,Knight-Ridder News Service

Karen Levin Coburn was a schoolgirl in madras headbands when she left her suburban New York home to attend college in the Midwest in the '60s.

When she stepped off the plane for her first visit home at Christmas, she had become a Sophisticated Woman.

"I had my hair wrapped around my head," Ms. Coburn recalls. "I was wearing a long, black coat with raccoon collar and -- this was the best part -- I had a cigarette holder that was black with rhinestones in it."

Her parents laughed.

Today's back-from-college reunions may feature shaved heads, nose rings or tattoos near private parts parents no longer see. Your son brings home a new fondness for exceedingly loud, X-rated rap music. Your daughter has a fresh affection for wine and cigarettes.

Or maybe your offspring has come back reincarnated as a take-charge dynamo who bears no resemblance to the yawning student who, just months ago, needed prodding to finish homework.

This time of year, a new crop of college freshmen is back home for the holidays for the first reunion with Mom, Dad and the sibs, and one thing remains the same -- not much has remained the same.

"Expect that things will have changed," counsels Ms. Coburn, associate dean of students at Washington University in St. Louis, who wrote "Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Today's College Experience" (Adler & Adler, $12.95), a book about the change the parent-child relationship undergoes when the child leaves home. "The relationship is in a state of transformation. This person is living outside the family orbit now."

According to Ms. Coburn, there can be a variety of changes to deal with, including the sometimes discomforting realization that the parents and newly adult children now live on different sides of the clock.

Jeanne Labozetta, chief executive officer of Family Service Mid-Peninsula, a counseling center in Palo Alto, Calif., says one way for parents to calm their concerns about the comings and goings of adult children is to remember they have been making their own decisions for three or four months -- and have survived.

"You need to make your feelings clear," Ms. Labozetta says. "For example, if the child is drinking, lay down expectations about drinking and driving. Then, you have to let go and hope for the best."

Ms. Labozetta says parents also can take comfort in knowing the first couple of years away from home is when a young adult will test the limits, on everything from political convictions and relationships to drugs and alcohol use and fashion.

"This is a time for them to explore, to break off for a while," she says. "Often, they'll come back."

Ms. Coburn points out that students should respect their parents' feelings, as well, and make the effort to inform parents of their whereabouts. Common courtesy, dudes.

However, she points out they are likely to be in bed for the first couple of days. After all, they have just finished their first experience with the nightmare of finals week and probably will need to catch up on sleep.

"The first thing that happens when a kid comes home from college is that many parents are appalled at the way they look," Ms. Coburn says. "They'll be sick, they have . . . bags under their eyes."

Ms. Coburn says the first thing students should do is "assure your parents you don't usually look like this."

Unless they do. Those who have dyed their hair blue-black or had a rose tattooed on their left cheek (yes, that one) might relate to Karra Shewalter, an anthropology sophomore at San Jose State who had her right nostril pierced when she moved from San Diego three semesters ago.

"I take it out when I go home," Ms. Shewalter, 19, says of the tiny jewel on her nose. "My mom wouldn't like it at all."

But parents aren't the only ones who get surprised during that first reunion. Ms. Shewalter wasn't thrilled to find her 14-year-old sister had raided her closets and drawers and hauled the best stuff off to her own room. Other students come home to find all their treasured childhood possessions boxed in the rafters and their former bedroom -- a haven that reflected their taste in rap artists or shirtless actors -- transformed into a practical office.

"Home is a safe harbor," Ms. Co- burn notes. "If you need to make changes, let them know."

Josh Rees, a San Jose State freshman, knows his parents have '' made a big change since he started college. For the holidays, he went to his parents' new house in Japan. He calls his parents' house as "home" even though he hasn't seen it.

In general, parents and adult children simply need to respect each other. John Melko, 50, a regional sales manager from Foster City who has launched four children into adulthood, says his advice to other parents is to treat your young adult as you would any visiting relative.

"Plan some way to be together, but don't fill up the kids' entire vacation time," Mr. Melko says. "They have friends they want to see. Go to a play or something special, but tell them ahead of time so they can work out their schedule around it."

Parents should enjoy the adult their child has grown into, and young adults should enjoy discovering they have more and more in common with the folks, who turn out to be a lot more cool as people than they ever were as parents.

And nobody should take things too seriously. Vacations end, after all, and usually all too soon.

"It's only for a couple of weeks," Ms. Labozetta says. "Have a sense of humor."

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