In Formerly Empty Nest, She’ll Ruffle Feathers

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When children go off to college today, there's no guarantee they won't be coming back. How can you best prepare for this?

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.

A Dec. 10 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 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 USA doing workshops for college students on how to successfully emancipate on less than $10 a day.

Forty years ago, when a child left home for college, it was assumed by all that he or she would not come home after graduation. Not anymore. 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.

I could tell you to be proactive and arrive at an explicit agreement with your daughter concerning rules and responsibilities, but parents have told me horror stories about returnees who flagrantly violate these agreements once 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. 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.

It's probably going to cost you both emotionally and financially. 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 on her feet. Pay the first three months completely, then steadily decrease your welfare check over the next nine months until it's eliminated.

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

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