Column: Parents just don't understand

The Duke store is stocking up on Duke Dad bumper stickers. Reservations have been made at Magnolia Grill. In four days, rooms will be as clean as they are all year. It's that time again: Parents' Weekend! Nevermind that they will find nowhere to park; somehow, the 'rents will arrive at your dorm and ooh and ahh over your roommate's skills/ taste/talent in (blank) as you stand back, devising the next activity for these people you love and want to make proud but sometimes detest--what is your relationship with these folks now?

My freshman year, I was eager to show my parents just how wonderful a time I was having at Duke. We wore blue to the football game, threw a tailgate party for all my new friends; they came to my gospel choir concert. Just as they were leaving, my mom said, "You seem unhappy." Was I? I didn't think so; but maybe I was. Or maybe I wasn't and just thought I was because she said so. When they left, I realized that she was right; my life was lacking something.

Turns out, it was a couch. Or rather, more organization and light in my dorm room (the place was quite dim). But her comment left me to wonder: to what extent am I really independent as a college student or is my independence purely physical? After all, I was not unhappy until she told me I was.

This summer, I lived in a small village in the south of France for a month with my family; yes, this means that essentially the only people I talked to for four weeks were my sister, parents and aunt. (Okay, okay��I could have practiced my French more with the natives, but do not pretend you would be disciplined and confident enough to approach the four teenagers in the garden every afternoon and utter what would have been the equivalent of "I am American; have okay that I sit?")

One morning we went to a Provencal market, and my mom and I had to shake hands--literally. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her. Sparing you the details, we had both been thinking of each other as extensions of ourselves, and it wasn't working. I did not like what she wanted to do and talk about, and I did not like that she did not like what I wanted to do or talk about. In other words, she was not me, and that was a problem.

It is funny how living away from home, you realize things about yourself you could not as your parents' tenant. "Wait, I actually do not enjoy this. And I have always just done it without question!" Becoming a person who is not only your parent's daughter or son means facing the challenge of relating to them as a new person, and that is bound to cause some conflict.

The key to emerging from this conflict in tact is to recognize the change and accept it (I am mainly talking to parents at this point): "John is a real person, parts of whom are like me, and parts of whom are not. That's okay."

Unfortunately, the adjustment is rarely this simple. Tension pervades conversation for a while, then resentment ensues in the mind of the student, then finally--hopefully--someone does the confronting: "What's going on, here?"

From what I have experienced, I recommend welcoming this confrontation sooner than later. Granted, it will be awkward, new, and temporarily hurtful, but it beats the alternative: an estranged relationship.

Here is how my relationship with my parents has evolved (of course simplified for the sake of condensed description--my mom and dad each have unique relationships with me): Entering college, I sought independence.

Realizing that moving out did not grant me this, I became resentful and thought that internal criticism of my parents would distinguish me from them. When that only made me more unhappy, I waited for another way out until finally realizing that independence meant not rebelling, but acting as an individual who is partly the product of my parents and partly not.

Today, I laud my father's ability to excel at work while putting family first and my mother's remarkable yet humble intelligence about which only people close to her know. I want to make them proud of me, and I give their advice more weight than anyone else on the planet. I hope that in my marriage I will be as content and joyful as they are after 25 years.

But it has taken me two years and multiple confrontations to feel this way. I depended on them, then resented them, then loved them as distinct people. Parent's Weekend will be the most fun it has been as a result.

Some concluding thoughts: Parents, do not dismiss your child's political views as a phase of youth (at least not out loud). Do not exercise your right to say, "no" without discussion. Do not interpret our making choices different from yours as a response to your parenting.

To students: Do not blame your parents for teaching you what they believe. Do not react to what they taught you by embracing the opposite of it. Do not assume that they should be able to accept the new you with ease. Coming out of this as friends means cutting each other some slack. And from my corner, the new friendship is worth the slack.


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