Theology 101

Preparing for Your College Student to Come Home for the Holidays

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Your eldest child has been attending a Christian college out of state for the past three months. You were able to see her during Parent’s Weekend in late September. You had a great time. You saw a play, watched a football game, attended a chapel service, toured the campus, and met some of her new friends. You noticed she had grown up a bit since leaving home. 

You are excited for her to come home for Thanksgiving where you can enjoy some family time. Everyone has missed her so much. But then, a few weeks prior, she mentions during her weekly phone call that she doesn’t have the time or money to come home. She plans to spend the holiday with her roommate and her family.

What are parents to do in this situation? How are you going to handle this disappointment? Is this just the start of a “new normal,” where one by one, your children disappear from family events? As Christian parents of a young adult, are there any biblical principles that might apply? Is there any wisdom on how to deal with this in a Christ-like manner? 

I believe there is. Let me offer some timeless and timely truths from God’s word that should help Christian parents respond to these changes, whether their student decides to come home or not. The biblical principles I will share are among the most eye-opening and practical discoveries I have made. I trust they will enable parents entering these unfamiliar waters to adapt to the changes that happen to the family when a young adult leaves home.

(Note: This is a follow-up article to one I wrote back in July on lessons learned from launching our children off to college.)

Moving from Obedience to Honor

When you look at what God commands children, you find two similar yet distinct requirements. In the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:12), God commanded his people to honor their father and mother. This applies to both children and adults.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul commands children to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). This command applies to children only. Unlike the command to honor one’s parents, this one has an expiration date. Adults are expected to honor their parents for life, but they are not expected to obey their parents for life. Only children are commanded to obey mom and dad. It is your responsibility as a parent to ensure that as your child becomes a young adult, you lead the transition for them to learn how to honor you and not to merely obey you. 

Now, let us attempt to apply this new understanding to this difficult situation. If your child respectfully informs you that they are unable to come home for Thanksgiving, they are in fact honoring you. You should be happy that they made this hard decision, despite your obvious disappointment. You may want them to consider other alternatives that yield a different outcome, if possible, but let them make the call.

Adapting to the Changing Adult Relationships

It is important to note that our job as parents does not end when our children become adults. However, it does change. Parents are no longer completely responsible for every aspect of their lives. Adult children are now responsible for themselves.

When they do come home for the holidays, I would like to help set expectations for this first visit to avoid some of the inevitable awkwardness:

  • Know that your young adult will have matured during their first semester.
  • Discuss with the younger siblings to expect that they will be different.
  • Allow them time to see old high school friends, but express a desire that they spend some quality time with the family as well.
  • Don’t be afraid to set some reasonable and realistic expectations to minimize disruptions (i.e., coming home at a decent time, being present for meals, etc.).

Trusting God Through Change

I know it was difficult to let them go a few months back. You desire a happy family reunion. However, it may end up being less than what you hope for. Like any trial we go through as Christians, this adjustment for your entire family will become an opportunity to trust God. You and your spouse will have to pray and seek God’s wisdom.

My sister-in-law recently reminded me that college is a good laboratory for both young adults and their parents. The young adult can make mistakes with a safety net underneath them, and parents have the time to slowly learn how to let them go.

I am reminded of when Jesus wandered away from his parents as a twelve-year-old boy (Lk. 2:41-51). They eventually found him engaging with the Jewish religious leaders. His reason for being there was that he was “doing his Father’s business.” In the same way, you need to be prepared to see this God-given development to occur in your own adult child. What began when they were a young teen will approach its conclusion during this time. As you learn to embrace their efforts towards greater independence, you may see that they are also doing their Father’s business. You can enhance this process by leading them in this transition.

Closing Thoughts

Here is an additional challenge to consider as you prepare for your student to come home. Think about when they are preparing to leave again.

Years ago, I made the painful discovery that when a child heads back to school after the holidays or in the fall, they are not leaving home—they are going home. School is their new home. It is where they belong because it is where God has called them to be. Once I realized this, I simply learned to rejoice with those who rejoice. They are returning to what has become their new life—one that is full of new relationships, activities, and possibilities as they receive their education and set their sights on what God is calling them to do vocationally. 

It is easy to focus on what you have lost as a parent. But I found it possible to focus more on what they are gaining. My wife and I found peace in the midst of the storm when we remembered that these precious children were not ours to keep. If they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they are not just our child, they are our brother or sister in Christ. More importantly, they are God’s child. We can entrust them into his loving hands.

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