The return of stinky socks: Why having kids home from college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Claire McCarthy,MD

I am ready for my oldest two children to go back to college.

With the two of them around, the house is louder and messier. The laundry went from manageable to impossible again, and the grocery bill skyrocketed. They consider it their house; I consider it mine. That used to mean the same thing, but somehow it doesn’t anymore; how they like to live in their house is different from how I like to live in mine. Zack’s newfound cleanliness, which he boasted about often over the semester, apparently only applies to dorm rooms. His bedroom is trashed and smelly again.

There’s also the work involved in managing five kids. Over the fall, we’ve gotten used to managing three—which is still a lot of work, with three school dropoffs and pickups, swim practice, karate practice, homework, playdates, and everything else—but is definitely easier than managing five. Now Michaela needs to get dropped off at the train for work, Zack is picking up a shift at the YMCA or wants to go work out, dinner schedules and menus need to be adjusted, there are extra errands and appointments. They want to stay up late and then stay in bed until noon, which is disorienting and disruptive. And, of course, they are always asking to borrow the car.

They have come back from college different: more independent, used to doing what they want to do when they want to do it. Which makes sense, as they have been living on their own—and they are both legal adults. But besides the fact that we are paying their hefty tuition bills (so much for independence), they are part of a family.

I tried laying down ground rules. I did it up front. “I can’t believe you’re having this conversation with us in the car before we’re even home,” Michaela said after I picked her up at Northeastern and picked Zack up at the airport. I’m doing it before I’m angry with either one of you, I told them. You can’t live at home the way you live at college. We expect that you’ll be respectful and helpful.

“I tried laying down ground rules. ‘I can’t believe you’re having this conversation with us in the car before we’re even home,’ Michaela said. ‘I’m doing it before I’m angry with either one of you,’ I said.

And mostly, they are. But it’s weird. Like curfews—as legal adults, they think they shouldn’t have one. But when they come in late it wakes us up, and we can’t help worrying about them. So we want them to have a curfew. And general house rules about things like screen time or rotating chores—do they apply to them anymore? And while my expectation was that they would babysit the little ones whenever we needed them to, they clearly did not share that expectation. Everything becomes a dance, a negotiation.

It’s a little easier with Michaela—she’s in her second year at college, and has been through this with us before. She rolls her eyes and complains sometimes, but she’s more comfortable with the negotiation dance; she asserts herself on things that are important to her and gives in quickly on things that aren’t. She’s more comfortable in general, having had practice at this whole being-at-home-again thing.

With Zack, it’s more complicated. This is his first extended time at home since starting college, and we can see him trying to figure out how he feels and what to do. He wants to be here, he loves his family—and yet he misses his school friends (especially his girlfriend) and his independence. He isn’t sure what he can ask for or what he can do—and when he’s not sure, it makes me unsure. One moment he’s being sweet and thoughtful, and the next moment he’s being self-centered and making us crazy. It’s exhausting.

They never stop being your children, people say, and it’s true. But they do stop being children. Therein lies the challenge: how do you parent an adult?

I don’t know the answer to that. If I did, this winter break would have been easy, and it hasn’t been. I think it has something to do with being available—available to listen, available to help—while allowing a little distance. I think it also has something to do with being consistent, with providing home and familiarity and values that don’t change when everything around them changes. I think it has a lot to do with loving them—because we all need to know we are loved. We need it badly.

As much as I complain about them, I like the adults that Michaela and Zack are becoming. They may be messy and loud, but they are kind, interesting, (mostly) responsible, and fun. And here’s what’s really cool: at various times during this break, each has been supportive, has asked me how I’m doing, has talked with me and really listened. That’s the gift, I’m realizing, of having adult children: they can be your friends.

There’s not much more of break. Michaela goes back this weekend, and Zack the weekend after. Life will soon be neater, quieter, and more manageable. And yet, I know that I will miss them—and I’ll look forward to having them home again.

6 thoughts on “The return of stinky socks: Why having kids home from college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

  1. While your children are home they need to abide by your house rules which include a curfew. I’m shaking my head over the thought that YOU are doing their laundry! That is crazy.

  2. feeling nearly the same about my middle son, who goes to boarding school and his sister who is about to go to college. Thank you Dr. for reassuring me that my conflicting feelings are shared by others:)

  3. thanks for sharing this i went through some thing that got out of control and it ended up separating my kids are on there own my son turned out more responsible and has his family my daughter well this is another story but she will have to learn from the school of hard knocks. it is nice to see what other people go through thanks for sharing

  4. As my mother would always say… “I am glad to see you come..and I’m glad to see you go”!!!

  5. Dr. I am an employee @ CHB. I really enjoy reading your articles and find them very helpful.I also share them with my wife.Being parents of 3 little ones that are growing fast every bit of info helps. Thanks! My mom always tells us that they(kids) “do not come with directions”

  6. When we dropped our oldest son off in ME at post-grad prep school, I was teary eyed. Not sure if it was from the sadness of seeing my oldest off, or the pain of the tuition bill…. When we dropped our middle boy off in CT at post-grad prep it wasn’t as painful; we were excited at the prospects of him playing baseball there. My friends all told me “when they go off to college you’ll miss them, but when they come home for break you’ll want them to go back.” I didn’t believe them. I love my kids; I would never feel like that. Guess what. All 3 came home from college with laundry bags full. They messed up my house and wanted meals cooked for them. And they wanted money. I said to myself “isn’t it time you went back to school….” Long story short, this too shall pass. We all go through this as we struggle to pay the tuition bills… The thrill of watching my boys play college baseball and football (thank you Lord for scholarships) was worth the price of admission. We send them off in life with an education and we do all we can to somehow live through the ups and downs. We look back years later and wonder how we did it. It really is one of the gloriously fun but trying times of raising our children!

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