The College Kid Comes Home

March 24, 2022
Alternate Title: Parents and Tasmanian Devils Can Peacefully Coexist

Our youngest son, Dawson, came home from college this weekend. It’s Spring Break, and he is in town for 10 days. Jill, Duffy and Maggie Mae (our Scottish Terriers), and I are thrilled to have him home. My good friend Chris Erskine wrote about his son, who is the same age as Dawson, coming home from college in his post this week, and he said it perfectly. (Actually, Chris Erskine is not my good friend, but he is a true writer, and his writing makes me feel like we are friends. He shares enough about the good, bad, joyous, and painful elements of his life to let me in, like a good friend would. Have I ever met him? Well, no. Not yet.) But anyway, my good friend Chris wrote about his son this week, “Yeah, three months since he’s been home. Too long. Forever. For 18 years, I saw him every morning, every night. The house wasn’t a home without him. He took his first steps in this place, said his first words, spilled his first juice box all over my shirt.” Exactly.

That pretty much describes Dawson, except he took his first steps during a faculty meeting at Malibu High School. (Please don’t tell his mom. She thinks she was there for his first steps!) He lived in our house – the same house – for his entire life, until this fall. I still can’t get over the one-house-for-18-years thing. Unlike Dawson, I lived in at least six different houses in five different cities before I left for college. None of that moving actually mattered in my very happy childhood, but it must be interesting to live in just one house and have just one bedroom for the first 18 years of your life. And even though empty nesting is going well, our house is more of a home when he’s here.

Our older son, Ryan, is 31. He’s been out of the house for 13 years, and even though I talk to him several times each and every week, I still miss his presence in our home and look forward to the next time I see him.  

That being said, after a week of having one of them home again, I do have to admit that their return, and the quick transformation of the bedroom from a neat, pristine guest bedroom into, well, not that, and finding dirty glasses, dirty plates, and leftover food in unexpected places, is a reminder of what it was like to have a Tasmanian Devil (or two) in the house, and it won’t be totally awful to have the house back to ourselves again. I look back at this paragraph and I don’t like at all that I sound like my Dad talking about me when I was their age.

I know my parents felt the same way when we were kids. Tuesday’s Wordle answer, “SLOSH,” reminded me of a Tasmanian Devil moment when the four of us kids, probably aged 4, 6, 7, and 8 were upstairs taking baths, “safely” out of the way while my parents were hosting a lovely dinner party. Compared to the four of us, Ryan and Dawson are very tame Tasmanian Devils. I’m not sure how it all got started, but we ended up having an epic water fight in the upstairs bathroom, featuring a lot of splashing and water sloshing over the edges of the bath. We would have gotten away with it, too, except for the fact that said sloshed water magically made its way through the floor down to an opening in the ceiling holding the beautiful crystal chandelier suspended above the dining room table. It started as a drip, drip, drip that raised diners’ eyebrows and soon turned into a steady stream of water pouring down onto the dinner table, prompting the guests to run for safety, and my mom to frantically scramble to save the food. My dad did not help with the food saving, as he was too busy running up the stairs to address the problem directly. And boy was he mad. He stopped us mid-slosh, making sure that we all knew how angry he was. If one’s vocal volume was the main factor for a parent of the year award, my dad would have won in a landslide in that moment!

So the Tasmanian Devil thing is something my kids come by honestly.

One of my theories about parenting is that with each child, parents have somewhere between 14 and 16 years to impart lessons in their parental role. That happens by setting and enforcing the rules, developing good habits, exploring children’s interests and passions, instilling a code of morality, building self-esteem and self-discipline (those two can be at odds with each other), and doing all of the things that make parenting unbelievably difficult, yet incredibly meaningful. But somewhere in that 14 to 16 age range, these young adults reach a point where the natural consequences of their mistakes or bad decisions are far more impactful than any consequences a parent can impose. For me, that has not meant that my parental role is over, but it has meant a shift. It has moved me into a mentor/friend role, and optimally I will stay there for the rest of my life.

Somewhere in that 14 to 16 age range, these young adults reach a point where the natural consequences of their mistakes or bad decisions are far more impactful than any consequences a parent can impose. For me, that has not meant that my parental role is over, but it has meant a shift. It has moved me into a mentor/friend role, and optimally I will stay there for the rest of my life.

Mark Twain wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years. There should be a get-even quote for parents that goes something like, “When my child child was 14, their incompetence as a human being made me think I was a complete failure as a parent. But by the time they were 21, I was amazed at how much my parenting lessons had sunk in over the last seven years.”

To me, those seven years are a huge transition time. They are challenging years because each child and parent is figuring out how to navigate to this new role in the relationship. The transition time from parent to mentor/friend can be painful, but having experienced it, I know there’s nothing better. I do miss the 18 years where we lived together 24-7. At the same time, empty nesting is not bad at all. Pretty darn good, actually. And during times like this week, when one of my boys is back in the house like old times, I’ll drink it all in, accept the anthill of bad with the mountain of good, and remind myself how truly fortunate I am, and how much I have to look forward to.

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  1. Birgitta Istock says:

    Thank you for another delightful read. I can’t wait to see a picture of you cooking dinner for Chris! 😉

  2. Bill Sampson says:

    Hey Mike:

    You should go on one of Chris Erskine’s hikes. They are seldom particularly close to us but worth the drive. For example, I’m an LA native and grew up – well, lived – only a few miles from an area called “Frog Town.” We hikers tramped through it one afternoon. I don’t drink but it was fun to gather with Chris and other striders at a nearby saloon. Maybe we could carpool even. Naturally the pandemic put a real damper on his hikes.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Bill. Yes, I should do that. I get stuck in this “I live way out in the boonies” thing, and I need to get over it. I appreciate the push, and thanks for reading.

  3. Susan says:

    As my 4th and last child was leaving for college, I dreamed of slowing the car down just long enough to let him hop out. When the time came, I cried all the way back to the motel.
    The word is “bittersweet.”

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I know your fourth child. I’m surprised you even wanted to slow down! Ha! Actually, your fourth may be the kindest of all of them, and you raised four wonderful children. I’m partial to the oldest, but they’re all great! Thanks for reading.

  4. Kevin Skelly says:

    Love this.

  5. Connie Harrington says:

    Mike, I wish I had known how much fun it was to have adult children bc I wouldn’t have mourned every milestone along the way! I can see you’re discovering the same. I was surprised to hear you mention Chris Erskine. When he worked for the LA Times writing his column, which I read religiously for years, he had a stint where he chose the Photo of the Summer or some such and what a coincidence my nighttime photo of the Amsterdam canals won! It was just about time for school to start and when he found out I was a principal HE LOVED THAT!!! It was so obvi that he loved and appreciated educators. If you ever bump into him he’ll LOVE you, no question.

  6. Dermot Stoker says:

    I never would have imagined that the great Mark Twain and I have something in common. Great stuff Mike. Cheers, Derm

  7. Seth Finn says:

    Our Tasmanian devil is back at home this week as well, and it’s like you’re in our house. It’s the exact same thing, so happy to have him, spending every minute I can, which at this point is really just the in between times when he’s not off with his friends. And I too have entirely transitioned into friend/ maybe mentor territory. For example, my father in law asked me about his grades, I said I knew they were good enough to qualify for a good grades discount last year for our car insurance, but I had no clue of any of his grades for this year. He’s closing in on 20 years old, it’s up to him now, happy to support in any way he asks, but we’ve given all we have. As for how his room might smell, you’re braver than I am, I’m not going near there until he leaves and I can open all the windows.

  8. Merlin Clarke says:

    Remind me in my next life, that just because we share biology, there is no reason to think my child will be just like me. And… that child should have plenty of responsibilities (read chores).

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