My family has rules, your family has rules, and the one thing I think we can be fairly certain of, no matter what those rules are, is that our kids are not obeying them while they are away at college. While their transgressions might be large or small we treat them like responsible adults, capable of making their own decisions, right up to the moment when they cross our thresholds and then–my house, my rules?

The issues, be they drinking, sex or just mixing white and brights in the laundry are complicated by our changing relationship, our ability to accept the adults they have become, our need to control what goes on in our own homes and the presence of younger siblings watching ever so closely. So what to do, when the person who returns home bears all the signs of adulthood, but is very much your kid.

When they lived here my family had the usual dos and don’ts. Underage drinking–a big don’t. Letting me know where you are and with whom–a big do. Impeccable manners towards all adults at all times–another major do. And then there were the usual, keep grades up, after midnight, keep the noise down and STOP kicking that ball in the house. Did they always obey? Almost certainly not, but they took a good shot at it and covered their tracks when necessary.

But now they have another place they call home as well. In that home, I am just going put it out there and guess they are following whatever rules they have chosen to live by. But what to do when they are in our home, the home they grew up in, my home?

Last week was spring break and that means two kids home from college. I had missed them so much I had failed to think through all that they brought with them when they return. It took only minutes to remember. As soon as one son entered our house, high school friends arrived at the door to whisk him way to their favorite junk food joint. “Don’t worry mom I will be right back,” he said with that smile sons know to give their mothers, the one that melts your heart thus making it nearly impossible to speak, and he was out the door. So where to begin? There was fact that in mere seconds he had returned to his pig sty ways and spilled dirty laundry out of his bag and all over the entryway. It wouldn’t have been so bad but he threw it on top of the pile his brother had recently left when he returned from school. Then there was a gang of kids I like, but had actually not intended to spend spring break with, who were seemingly here to stay. Finally I had to face the fact that my kid, who was home, was already gone.

My first instinct was to grab the rules, the ones he knew well and had long lived by, and start checking off his transgressions. But then, even before I could furiously start tapping my cell phone and send off a nasty text I would soon regret, I stopped and thought. At that moment our house was the nicest most comfortable place he knew, but this will not always be the case. Dorm rooms will be replaced with apartments, apartments perhaps with houses. If our house is only a place of physical comfort, it will not long be his home.

Every night there were more kids sleeping in my house, every morning less food in my refrigerator. I couldn’t stay up late enough to even see who was here or if the lights were turned out and what little food remained was put away. A couple of mornings I awoke at 5:00 to hear their laughter and chatting as my day began and their night had not yet ended. So after a few more valiant attempts at self-control, I asked myself, was it my house, my rules and if it was, could it be their home as well?

The conventional wisdom is that they are adults and in dealing with adults it is important to lay down the rules of engagement. This wisdom says that if you make the rules of living together clear, chaos can be avoided. Here is my problem. They may be adults, but they are not just any adults. Chaos, I know from two decades of being a mom, is part of family life and I am pretty sure that real wisdom is never conventional.

I guess for me it comes down to this. I know that they know the rules, after all, they grew up in this house. Out of respect and love for us I hope they will abide them, and while I will issue occasional reminders, I will no longer enforce them. So at Christmas, a soccer ball and an expensive lamp had an unfortunate encounter (funnily we still have the soccer ball.) And as I took the many pieces of lamp out to the garbage, I said nothing. One of my kids stayed at a friend’s all night without a word of his whereabouts, and I said nothing. Why?

Because there is one thing I want more good manners and thoughtful behavior, more than I worry about knowing where they have gone, more than I want them to never ruin another load of laundry, I want them to be themselves. If they cannot be themselves, if they feel that there is a person they need to be in order to inhabit our house, then this will never feel like home. And if there is one thing I want for my children, it is for this to always be home.

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