It's Thanksgiving weekend, and here he is, your child, home from college. This, however, is no ordinary Thanksgiving -- it's the Thanksgiving of his freshman year and, although neither of you knows it yet, it's going to prove to be a milestone for both of you.
What do you do when this exuberant son or daughter of yours arrives on your doorstep with a bizarre haircut (or none at all)?
In the three months or so since you last saw him, he's been telling new friends about the home he came from, about the successes enjoyed in high school.
Uneasy in the new leveling environment of college, he's been pointing backward in order to present an identity -- star athlete, editor of the paper, counselor at a drug center. He's probably made several calls home (the late-evening kind, asking you to send some of the things he decided not to bring), which you belatedly realized were cries of homesickness.
By the time he leaves home again at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, the pointing backward will have changed to a pointing forward. Now he will be almost eager to get back to the dorm and hear how his friends' weekend went, and in the following four weeks he will be anguishing his way through his first college finals and term papers.
In the few short weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- as any professor or dean can tell you -- most freshmen finally will settle into new lives.
Parents don't usually realize, however, that although their children's perceptions of home will necessarily change during the weekend, the quality of this change is pretty much up to the parents.
In her book, Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst points to parents who are change-resisters, who "defy the realities of time by hanging on to their power and to their nonnegotiable ways of doing things."
Thanksgiving weekend presents an opportunity for the final stage of parenting: the blessing, the letting-go as grown children are cheered on with affection and respect toward full autonomy.
So, now it's Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. Your freshman has arrived -- unexpectedly thin (or pudgy), sprouting facial "zits" from too much midnight junk food, and lugging a duffel bag full of books for a term paper. What now?
Here are nine suggestions which, admittedly, emphasize restraint ("Bite your tongue." "Grit your teeth.").
1. Say positive things. Comment six times in four days, "You look wonderful!" or "It's wonderful to see you!" The corollary is that you make no remark on the weight gain, the miserable hair, the ragged nails.
2. Get information gently. "Tell me about your friends" is a good opener to help your daughter see her new acquaintances somewhat objectively as she describes them.
3. Use your third ear. Listen, listen, and listen some more. Behind the extra pounds and the overly loud voice lurks more self-doubt than you've experienced in a long time. Your son or daughter's unexpressed but overriding anxiety this first semester is, "Can I make it? Will people like me? Should I even be in this hard school?" You can help by listening and being reassuring.
4. Don't ask. Drugs and sex are very much a part of your worries, but don't pry. Your son already knows your wishes, and grilling him now may force him into lying. Restating your opinions may make you -- and even him -- feel better, but outright probing and threatening will be counterproductive.
5. Keep calm. Despite your valiant efforts, flare-ups may erupt during the long weekend. Your freshman has had some difficulty learning how to deal with emotions this semester (the creepy roommate, the "stupid" professor), and the sudden temper loss may be due to college stress or to outright irritation with you.
Hear it out calmly, filing away for future reference any apparently irrelevant accusations ("And you were really horrible to Aunt Martha at high school graduation!"). These may be important keys to another issue, and a day or so later you can invite conversation on this concern.
6. Ignore unopened book bags. As Friday turns into Saturday and this supposed college student still has not touched the book bag, she continues to mention "I have this Chem test next week." Bite your tongue. You want her to succeed academically, but she has to want it before anything can happen. And truthfully, it may not happen until second semester -- if then.
7. Grin and bear it. Limit yourself to one (good-natured) comment over his appalling loss of table manners. One day, these will return. Meantime, grit your teeth. If desperate, chide yourself on reaching across the table.
8. Respect her new status. On the matter of curfew: Three months ago you sent your nearly grown child to a community where students are respected as full adults by faculty and staff alike. Your daughter has been deciding for herself when (or even if) to quit socializing and go to bed. Your son has had to discipline himself -- without your help -- to hit the books. She is old enough to vote, and he is old enough to enter the military.
But you are entitled to demand consideration too, which is the trait your freshman has been practicing in dormitory life. The issue, you can explain, is worry about her safety, just as you would worry for that of any guest under your roof. "Call us if you'll be later than 2 a.m." is a reasonable request, and when she calls in at 1:59, ask that she call again at 4:30, "so we won't worry you were in an accident." Fair is fair.
9. Give. Hug him hard when he leaves at the end of the weekend. And give him something to take away, like cookies. Or a little extra cash.
No other species has the difficulty humans do in releasing their young. No other species tries to hang on for so long. Thanksgiving weekend provides a specific four-day period in which parents can, with forbearance, courtesy and good will, practice treating their own children as the adults they are becoming.
Janet Butler has taught English literature at the college level for the last 24 years and is now assistant to the president of St. Mary's College of Maryland, as well as the mother of two daughters in graduate school. Janet Willett is dean of students at St. Mary's College and has a 16-year old son.