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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 3, 2010

Help college grads move on, not move in

By John Rosemond

Q. What, if any, ground rules can and should parents set for a child returning to live at home after college graduation? My husband and I are facing this issue with our daughter in May, and we need help.

A. A recent Charlotte Observer article told of a 26-year-old Duke University graduate student who lives in his van, parked on the edge of campus, in order to finish school debt-free. He uses public facilities for all of his hygienic needs, eats lots of peanut butter and cooks on a camp stove. He works part time during the school year and full time as a park ranger in the summer. Ken Ilgunas is one resourceful guy. He could probably make a decent living for himself going around the U.S. doing workshops for college students on how to successfully emancipate on less than $10 a day.

Just 40 years ago, when a child left home for college, it was assumed by both parents and child that he or she would not come home after graduation. Many, if not most, of today's kids assume the opposite. If that's not problem enough, they often come back home with the attitude "You (parents) have to pay for my food as well as my share of the mortgage and utilities, but you can't tell me what to do." In other words, they want their parents to continue treating them like dependents, but they view themselves as independent adults who have no responsibilities to the people paying the larger share of their bills.

This is an example of pigeons coming home to roost, no pun intended. The pigeons in question are kids who grew up without obligation. Their parents were obligated, obviously, not them. So, after college, they come home fully expecting to pick up where they left off. Exceptions like Ilgunas exist, but they do not abound.

"Hey, Mom, did you do my laundry yet? What? Pick up my room? Hey! It's my room and I'm an adult! You can't tell me how I should keep my room! When's dinner anyway?"

This is a train wreck waiting to happen. I could tell you to be proactive and arrive at an explicit agreement with your daughter concerning rules and responsibilities, but countless parents have told me horror stories about returnees who flagrantly violate these agreements once they're safely ensconced in their old rooms, at which point getting them to leave creates painful, and often long-lasting family fractures. And let's face it, folks, you wouldn't be anxious about May if that wasn't a distinct possibility.

Or, I could tell you to levy consequences for violations of the rules. For example, if your daughter doesn't keep her room clean, take the door off.

But do you really want to get into warfare with a 20-something college grad?

A lose-lose proposition, for sure.

A number of folks have told me they had their returnee pay rent, only to realize that this arrangement gave the child tacit permission to be a room slob, come and go as she pleased, be disrespectful, and act generally entitled to parental servitude. My point is there's no pat solution to a problem that, if anticipated, is almost sure to manifest.

It's probably going to cost you both emotionally and financially to let your daughter come home in May. So, let's at least eliminate most of the emotional cost. Help her find a small efficiency apartment and assist with her rent and utilities for a year until she gets herself on his feet. Pay the first three months completely, then steadily decrease your welfare check over the next nine months until it's eliminated. Weaning a toddler from a bottle is a loose-fitting analogy.

As a last resort, you can always sell your house and move into a one-bedroom bungalow.

Family psychologist John Rosemond's Web site is www.rosemond.com.