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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 18, 2006

Home from college: What to do?

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion and Ethics Writer

MINETTE MCCABE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Bobbie Sandoz-Merrill

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Jane Moulin

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Sandy Kersten

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“Hopefully he’ll spend some time with me.”

— Sandy kersten | Mother of Harry Kersten, 18

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“I’m really looking forward to seeing my friends.”

— Harry kersten | College freshman, home for break

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Soon after Harry Kersten lands back on friendly soil — he's away at college right now — he plans to call all his friends to hit the beach with him.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing my friends, just to talk story and catch up," said Harry, 18.

"Hopefully he'll spend some time with me," his mother, Sandy, said wistfully. "(He'll probably) rush to see the dog and his surfboard, then say hello to me."

In Hawai'i, just more than half of our freshmen leave the Islands for four-year colleges. When they return for the holiday break, the urges of parents often conflict with those of their newly independent offspring.

Todd Fleming, a college counselor at 'Iolani, warns that the first few days back can be tough.

"Students are so excited to see friends from high school, and parents feel they're finally going to have their son or daughter home for two or three weeks," he said. "You know students. They take their parents for granted. It's challenging."

Family expert Bobbie Sandoz-Merrill, author of "Parachutes for Parents" and "Settle for More," says greeting academic refugees back into the house "stays tricky for a few years. It's the period when they're getting out on their own, when they want your opinion — but they don't."

She looks at adolescence as a transferring of the reins. And now it's time to adjust.

"Some parents are not as good as handing the reins over as they should be," she said, adding that if reasonable, returnees should be treated as adult houseguests on a special visit. "... It's not a chance to catch up on the parenting you didn't do. You want to start becoming adult friends."

We asked Sandoz-Merrill and two parents — Jane Moulin, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa whose daughter, Marie-Chantal, is a junior at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Sandy Kersten, an optician whose son, the aforementioned Harry, is a freshman at Pace University in New York City — how they deal with common dilemmas this time of year:

Q. Do I insist the kids take part in holiday traditions?

Sandoz-Merrill suggests parents call to ask what they'd like to do, acknowledging their offspring's autonomy. "Truthfully, they'd probably want to walk into (the house) decorated, but they might want to make cookies" or take part in other holiday traditions, she says.

Moulin waited until her daughter got home last week to decorate. "It's something I enjoy sharing with her," Moulin says.

Kersten will decorate on her own. However, she will be putting Harry's homemade ornaments from small-kid time in her treasure box, "where they'll stay until the day I die." And his dad, who is Jewish, will take him to the temple.

Q. What if they want friend time and you want family time?

Make it playful-casual-fun time, not get-the-leash-out-of-the-closet time, suggests Sandoz-Merrill: "Say, 'If this works for you, here are some things I'd like to do. It should be a 'we' decision. This is our friendship, not my management for you.' "

Moulin says Marie-Chantal planned a few things with her friends, but told her mother, "I'm all yours," though she laughingly admits, "I know when she gets home, it'll change."

For Kersten's son, it's his first visit back after leaving for school. "I think he's going to be out with his buds 80 percent of the time," she predicts. That's OK: All she needs is a few good-night kisses — and a few chores done, she added with a chuckle.

Q. Do I set house rules?

Use common courtesy, Sandoz-Merill advises. "If you're a houseguest, it'd be rude to just take off, not tell people where you are. It's not even safe."

Moulin hasn't set a curfew or other rules; she hasn't needed to. "(Marie-Chantal)'s been out on her own for the last two years and is well able to take care of her commitments."

You bet there will be house rules, Kersten says. Harry will be taking her "Breathalyzer" test (a kiss when he gets home). She's expecting to loosen the reins, but "I'd like to see him sometime every day," she said. At 18, he's probably not ready to be given full adult leeway yet. "To a point, he still needs our guidance.