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Laying Down House Rules for Your Adult Kids

Let them know your expectations when they visit

Laying Down House Rules for Your Adult Children

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Rules, such as always washing and putting away dirty dishes and not piling them in the sink, help maintain boundaries and sanity when adult kids return to live at home.

When self-proclaimed Tiger Mom Amy Chua discovered that her two daughters planned to live in her Manhattan apartment for the summer, she decided to take control. A Yale Law School professor, Chua drew up a contract with house rules for her 20-something children. "I was on the verge of becoming a tenant farmer in my own life," she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, explaining her reasoning.

The rules ranged from making beds daily, to keeping the couch pillows plumped and greeting parents with "spontaneous joy and gratitude whenever they visit." Whenever their dad came from Connecticut, the refrigerator was to be stocked with fresh orange juice.

We wondered what rules other parents lay down for their adult children who take up residence, whether for a few days, a few weeks or longer. And how well are the rules followed?

We may not list as many expectations as Chua, but I can relate to her rule No. 4: "Never, ever use the phrase, 'Relax — it's not a big deal.'" For many parents, it is a big deal to confront a messy family room or to lie awake anxiously at 3 a.m. waiting for an adult child to come home.

Parents need to draw a line in the sand and decide what's most important to them, says family therapist Debbie Pincus of Larchmont, N.Y. "The house is still your space, and while not being dogmatic, you can be reasonable and realistic about expectations. What's your bottom line?"

Having too many rules may backfire. A few years ago, a friend was preparing to host her three adult children, their spouses and her assorted grandchildren, ages infant to 12, for a month at her summer home. An organizational whiz, she sent them all an email with a list of ground rules. Among them:

  • Parents will do their best to stop their children from climbing on the family room furniture.
  • After dinner will be quiet time: resting, reading or playing quietly upstairs.
  • There will be scheduled meal hours to avoid a restaurant short-order dynamic and too many seatings.
  • Nobody will leave dishes, glasses or silverware in the sink. Rinse and put them in the dishwasher.

I checked in recently with this grandmother to see how she survived. Among other headaches, she faced dirty dishes piled in the sink and her guests eating at any and every hour. "It was a bloody diner, day after day. Meals stretched over several hours and sittings with different food for every eater and different periods of consumption," she says.

Despite her vow to never do it again, she says the group will descend again this month, but for a shorter stay. Her rules are down to a few pet peeves: "I still will vehemently oppose the dishes in the sink." And under extreme duress, "There's always my hiding places for a fast retreat."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://mothering21.com

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