Q. HELP! I am exhausted from lack of sleep, and the way things are going, I won't survive the next two months.
Our son -- not yet 19 -- is home for the summer after finishing his freshman year at college. Now that he's been totally on his own, he thinks he can come and go as he pleases and it's making a wreck out of me. Last night it was 3 a.m.; the night before -- 2:30.
He goes to work every day and has dinner with us. After that he's on the phone or gone. He has not spent an entire evening home since his return a month ago. His friends seem nice and there is no evidence of drinking or drug use, but a few years ago the son of our friend was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel. I worry that this will happen to my son.
Also, my son isn't saving any money. We pay for college, car and insurance. He buys the gas and maintains the car, but I want him to set aside a certain amount each week for his college spending money. His grades are just passing and I don't feel that he's becoming more responsible with time.
His father thinks this is the way young people are today and that I shouldn't worry, since there is no drug or alcohol use. He says that I only alienate him further by making an issue of his late hours and his behavior.
Am I being unreasonable? Do other parents have the same concerns?
A. A college freshman has many more rights than he did just a year ago -- and he has many more responsibilities too.
He has the right to goof off in school but if he flunks out, he should expect to pay for any more schooling he wants to get.
He has the right to a car at college too -- if he needs it and you can afford it -- and in return he should drive safely, pay for the gas and repairs, and run some family errands. You have to help your college student learn that life is full of pros as well as quids.
Your son has the right to decide how much to save, and when, and the obligation to supply his own spending money at school, even if you're rich. You'll probably pay for his transportation at the start and end of the school year, for trips home for major breaks, and for books, supplies and a few basic clothes; but he should be able to buy the rest of his clothes, earn his allowance and pay his phone bill at school. He may have to work during the school year and even have to write home for money by April, but this course in Life 101 will teach him as much as he'll learn in any class.
He also has the right to live at home in the summer, if he keeps his room fairly straight, does some chores, and contributes at least a little to the common good every day, and every week, whether it's washing and waxing your car, mowing the grass, cooking a meal or painting a room. He may be your child, but he's old enough to vote, to go to war -- and to act like a grown-up.
Finally, your son has the right to stay out half the night when he's home -- as long as he's willing to put up with your wrath. There are better ways to make him come home earlier, however, if you can be a little more understanding.
It's hard for the free and the brave to give up their independence when they've hardly had a chance to enjoy it, and your son is no exception. Since he'll never believe that he could fall asleep at the wheel, remind him that another driver is more likely to cross his center line late at night, because most heavy drinkers stay out until the bars close. Children of any age need to know that a parent fusses out of fear, rather than a need to control. Just make the point once, then ask him to try to be in by 2 and to tell you when he gets home, no matter what time it is. You'll sleep more easily if you know that he'll wake you, and he'll do it if you don't chastise him when he's late.
You need to recognize other fears, too.
Your son is afraid that he'll lose his new freedom, and you're afraid that you'll lose your son, not just physically but emotionally.
Already you ache because he hasn't spent a whole evening with you and his dad, and because you don't know his friends well or feel like part of his life any more. That's hard for any parent to take, but perhaps he will be more sociable if you take him out to supper and the movies one night, or invite some of his friends over for a barbecue.
You have to be honest with him, too. Tell your son that you love him and miss him when he's away, and that your feelings are really hurt because he's never at home, even when he's living there.
Your pain may seem obvious, but your son doesn't know what you think unless you tell him. Each of us is essentially alone, and as hard as we try we can't completely walk in the shoes of another, when we're still trying to walk in our own.
When you explain how you feel, ask him to be just as candid. This air-clearing will help a little, and if you're not accusatory or judgmental, he'll come back to the fold when he's more mature and self-confident. We all need a little space, and sometimes we need quite a lot.
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