A college roommates dilemma: What should you do if you live far away from your child's campus and worry that your family isn't contributing enough to the communal apartment?
You realize that you can't schlep a couch across the country, but you want your child to feel that he or she is pitching in.
Hint: It's OK to accept help.
My sister lives in California, and her younger son goes to school in Boston. This year he is living off campus with roommates from the area. Their families provided furniture and kitchen supplies since it was easy to deliver them.
"They [the roommates] had discussed it among themselves and decided that the more local families would provide the furnishings for the apartment," she says. "I said, 'Oh, I feel kind of weird about that.'"
My sister, a naturally generous person, felt uncomfortable with her son being on the receiving end when their family is used to being givers. "I'm usually on the helping end," she says. "But that's just how it goes with college. The families who live more locally step in and help much more, including hosting the out-of-towners on long weekend breaks."
She plans to help out if friends and family send their kids to California schools. "What goes around, comes around, and it's all just a big community," she says.
That said, she asked her son whether she could pay for a welcome barbecue for the guys in the house. "He said, 'That's a good idea,'" she says.
So what do the experts recommend?
"There does need to be some quid pro quo," says Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. "It's important that there's some give and take."
But nothing can ever be exactly even - unless it's something easy, like precisely splitting the utility bill, he says.
He likes my sister's barbecue offer. "That's perfect," he says. "There's that sharing. 'Let me recognize what you did for me, while at the same time saying, I accept your generosity, and I want to be generous as well.' It's a good lesson for the kids and the parents."
Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character, suggests that moms and dads show their willingness to pitch in with an act of generosity to thank the student whose family donated furnishings. "But it is important that parents make this offer to their own student, who then weighs the pros and cons of the offer independently," she says. "When and how to bring parents into the dorm room as players on the social stage should be each student's own decision."
Some parents may want to help set up the dorm room and feather their child's nest, she says. "The parent may also worry that their offspring cannot manage their social relationships with the new roommates independently, and needs to make sure that their son or daughter is properly fair and grateful to the other roommates for whatever the roommate is contributing."
Berger recommends that parents "recognize that the dorm room and its social relationships is between the students who live in it." Parents can offer "to their own offspring" a couch or a rug or money to buy items or festive meals that the group of roommates can share, she says. But they should not presume that they're "part of the social space."
"Certain roommates can become lifelong family members and bring their mutual parents together into a tight bond," says Berger. "Until this happens, however, the new student should be reassured that parents are ready and waiting to pick cues that their social involvement is truly a good idea. When the student feels the moment is right, the nature of the parental involvement - a gift of money, an expensive TV, or a homemade pie - can be determined by the student and his family."
I always think about the excellent advice a good friend gave me about the secret to a happy marriage: "Don't keep score." It's true for relationships with everyone, including college roommates.
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