Tips for Parents
Meeting the new girlfriend or boyfriend
By Scott Sager
When I dropped my older daughter off at college her freshman year, I was excited for some new experiences, like the first Family Weekend. Other events I was definitely not looking forward to (getting the tuition bills).
Then there are things I’m not sure about, that make me a little nervous. At the top of this list is what it will be like when she brings a significant other home for the first time.
Scenes of this type of event in movies and on TV are always cringe-worthy, with someone feeling angry or embarrassed by the end. How do I keep this from happening in real life?
There has been a lot of recent examination of “hook-up culture” and the nature of college relationships today. In an era when many students pursue romantic and sexual connections without labels or commitment, it may be a major change for your student to call someone a boyfriend or girlfriend and an even bigger step to introduce this special person to the parents.
When that young man or woman walks through the front door with your student, don’t start sweating or planning the wedding. A recent analysis by Facebook found that 28% of married couples went to the same college, pointing to the importance of relationships made on campus. At the same time, a Pew Research Center study found that young adults are marrying later, suggesting that though students often meet future spouses at college, they may not begin dating until after graduation.
The first significant other who sits at your dinner table may not become your in-law. The key to a successful meeting, then, is to relax and avoid the big mistakes. Dr. Anne K. Fishel offers common sense guidelines for do’s and don’ts: do keep the childhood pictures in the cabinet; don’t tell embarrassing family stories; don’t talk about your student’s previous relationships; don’t grill your guest about future intentions, desire for children or what a dream wedding would look like.
Welcome your guest as you would anyone to your home — invite him or her to help set the table or another task to prevent that awkward standing-around feeling. Allow your son or daughter to stay close to their companion rather than cornering your visitor alone for a private talk. Be curious, asking appropriate questions, listen to answers and respond to show you’re engaged in the conversation.
Beyond the dinner table, other questions will come up, perhaps most importantly, where will the couple sleep and will they share a room? Have this discussion with your student ahead of time to avoid possible conflict and awkwardness. There are no simple answers here but agreeing in advance to ground rules is a big step.
At school, your student lives very independently and makes decisions about where and with whom to sleep, but at home, you have some say. Respect for a host’s feelings is reasonable to expect from a guest. If you do agree to let them share a room, talk through some guidelines around courtesy with your student. Whatever you decide, have arrangements ready when they arrive to avoid any confusion — make sure the guest room is set up, for example, if that’s the plan.
Perhaps most importantly, treat your guest with courtesy and respect if you expect the same. This includes keeping criticisms to yourself and, if you need to, share them privately with your student after the visit is over. Don’t sweat the small stuff, either. If your visitor doesn’t help clear the table, be gentle. Try, “Why don’t you two clear the dishes,” instead of, “In our house everyone helps clear the table.” Remember, there is much you don’t know about this person. What is certain, though, is that they are important to your son or daughter.
I know when this finally happens, I’ll observe everything my daughter’s guest does, looking for clues about this new person and their relationship. While I won’t be able to resist that scrutiny, I can keep my thoughts to myself. I want her to be comfortable bringing someone home and starting on the right foot will be important.
My daughter has brought friends home, individuals and groups, who I’ve fed and housed for a weekend. I enjoy the energy college students bring and the chance to share a meal with them. When a significant other shows up, I’ll try not to be different in the hospitality I offer, even if inside I’m a jumble of nerves.
Other recent articles by Scott Sager:
College roommates in the 21st Century — Gender identity and campus housing
Room for risk — What changes (and doesn’t) on the parenting journey
Grandparents — Keeping these important people in your student’s life
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