Dear Hobie & Monk,
Our son is a freshman in college, and for his first spring break, we allowed him to bring his new girlfriend to stay at our house for the week. We told him that they would be staying in separate bedrooms and that we were excited to meet her. One morning I came downstairs early to make breakfast for everyone, and my son was coming out of the guestroom, where his girlfriend was staying. It was not only awkward but deeply disappointing — how should I have handled the situation?
– Shocked and Awed
Hobie: Parents always laugh a little less freely when this scene plays out on the big screen; they’re already privately wondering, “Oh man, what would I do, what would I do?” Or perhaps you can’t imagine your sweet little toddler ever morphing into someone who would so flagrantly flout your rules and then bam! He’s back from Cornell with girlfriend in tow, and all bets are off.
Well, here’s the deal: There is the conversation you have with him before he comes home on vacation (the prevention phase), and there is the conversation you have with him after the awkward “meet in the hall and someone’s coming out of the wrong room” moment (the intervention phase).
Every parent or parental unit gets to lay down the law about who stays where in the home when college kids (and other guests) visit. And, of course, different families have different ideas about what is appropriate at different ages and stages of relationships. Be clear with your son about where he and anyone else is allowed to stay while under your roof, along with any other rules that may exist — using the car, setting a curfew, etc. — ahead of any visits home. When it comes to a visiting girlfriend, especially, remind your son that you are thrilled to meet her and don’t want her embarrassed by any tense interactions during her stay.
Shockingly, this pre-visit talk doesn’t always work, and some of you out there might be tempted to claim a little college amnesia of your own. As a parent, though, you’ll need to smooth things in the moment but then pull your son aside and tell him flat out that disobeying your rule was unacceptable (so was his girlfriend’s, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt for this first infraction). Tell him in no uncertain terms that it’s not to happen again, or you’ll need to send his girlfriend home.
Use your judgment about whether you need to mention anything directly to her, but if she’s a class act, she’ll be mortified and apologize to you first. And just think, what a great story for the rehearsal dinner …
Monk: … Assuming she is the bride. Which is unlikely.
As a college freshman, your son will probably meet and get to know (though not necessarily in the biblical sense) many young ladies in the years ahead. Girlfriends will come and go as he figures out how to be a partner in an adult relationship, and maybe, someday, one of those girlfriends will become your daughter-in-law.
In the meantime, you are, as you always have been and will remain until the day you die, his mom. And this very important relationship, one that you share with your adult son, will be strongest when it is built on mutual respect and appreciation. That’s why I suggest that, in addition to the prevention and intervention phases, you consider the somewhat awkward debrief phase (no pun here, really).
The debrief phase happens at a neutral time after the unfortunate event and is an opportunity for each of you to reflect upon what went wrong, how it felt and how you will handle the situation in the future when the (next) girlfriend comes to town.
Your son may or may not be willing to have this conversation, but by encouraging it, you are showing him how two adults who care deeply for one another move on after a conflict.