When my college kids returned home after the University of Tennessee canceled live classes for the semester due to coronavirus, my wife and I laid down the law. “You’re in a functioning home now,” we said. “This isn’t a college dorm. We’ll go to bed at a decent hour and get up at a decent hour.”
Exactly 10 days later I found myself logging onto the online multiplayer video game World of Warcraft at 1:30 a.m., just minutes after we finished binging Tiger King on Netflix. I logged off at 2:40 a.m. My college son was already fast asleep.
We fought the good fight against the college life, and the college life won.
We’re all students now. Or, to put it more precisely, we all live like students, but two of us are still parents, and we confront one of the most profound parenting challenges of our lives – how do you lead a household through a crisis when everyone is smart enough and sophisticated enough to understand that, at the end of the day, everything might not be okay?
Before we talk about the challenge, let’s talk about the fun. Spend much time with college students, and their lifestyle exerts an irresistible pull. It’s hard to get work done when there’s fun to be had. Should I work on a 1,500 word piece on the constitutional right to interstate travel, or should I look at dog videos on TikTok while talking about theodicy (the theological exploration of why God permits evil) with the future seminarian in the house?
The answer, as every good student knows, is “yes to all.” In college, there is no “or.” There is only “and.” I will watch that video, and I will do my research. I will talk late into the night about the great questions of life, and I will also write my essay. The variable is sleep, and – hey – if you don’t have that first Zoom call until 10:00 a.m., who says you have to get up before 9:59?
But that doesn’t mean you’ve transformed from parent to friend. You still parent.
The students in my house have lost jobs. One of them has lost a real graduation. They’re scrambling to figure out how to master difficult subjects in an online-only learning environment. And they don’t know if a functioning economy awaits them on the other side.
Moreover, they can’t necessarily look to you for superior knowledge. Smart college students absorb information at a tremendous pace. They can learn about flattening the curve, transmission rates, symptoms, and mortality rate as fast or faster than any other American adult. In many households, the college kids have become their parents’ tutors, taking the lead in urging them to take the crisis seriously.
In other words, unlike when our children were young, we can’t shield them. We can’t worry for them. Because they know the truth, they worry right along with us.
But most parents still do have something their college kids don’t – important, relevant life experience. If you’ve lived long enough to parent a college-aged kid, then there is a good chance you’ve faced the kind of crisis or challenge where you frankly did not know if everything was going to work out. You didn’t know if the terrible crisis would pass.
Perhaps you faced a health scare or a lost job and mounting bills. Perhaps you’ve been deployed and confronted the mortal danger of the battlefield, or you maybe you found yourself in the midst of the howling winds or choking smoke of a natural disaster.
If so, then you know there is a key word that helps you endure. You make it – or you don’t – together. That’s the experience of the “band of brothers” in the extremes of war. You don’t know if you or any of your friends will live through the day, but you know that regardless of what comes, you face it as one.
There are many millions of American “empty nests” that are full again. Parents and adult students are adjusting to life together, with all the tension and joy (even in crisis) that entails. These same students, as brilliant as they may be, are still looking to mom and dad to set an example. We can do that. We should do that. But not by sugarcoating away the truth or trying to reassure kids that everything will be fine – like we’re talking to a toddler with a scraped knee – but by assuring them that whatever the future brings, we’ll face it as a family.
And you’ll likely have that conversation at 1:00 a.m., moments before you restart your Netflix binge. After all, your son has until 2:00 a.m. before his next Call of Duty game starts. There are no Zoom classes until noon, and he’s got time. And now, because your house has become a dorm, apparently so do you.