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Get Your College Student to Be Productive This Summer — Without a Fight

Setting expectations is the key to avoiding conflict, experts say

parents talk with their teen child about important issues
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College students who come home for summer break often want just that — a break. Parents, meanwhile, typically want their kids to be more productive, whether that means working, volunteering or simply getting off the couch and out of the house.

“I hear a lot about this because it’s the bulk of my summer business,” says Shane G. Owens, a board-certified psychologist on Long Island, New York.

But while this may not be an uncommon problem, it’s certainly a frustrating one — for everyone.

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It comes down to “a mismatch of expectations,” says Alyson Schafer, 58, a family counselor and parenting expert based in Toronto.

Here’s how Schafer sees it: Kids think they should be able to come home, relax and be pampered — having someone do their laundry, make them meals and lend them a car — because they’ve worked so hard at school. Parents, meanwhile, often have to adjust to their “children” no longer being kids but rather young adults who don’t want to be micromanaged and told what to do.

“There’s a lot of conflict that happens if we don’t renegotiate the terms and expectations for parties on both sides of the equation about what the summer is going to look like,” she says.

Start by asking a question

Owens recommends keeping in mind that college students in normal times experience overwhelming amounts of stress — and that these are not normal times. In many cases, the past few years of pandemic living has interrupted the higher education experience they expected. They’ve had to deal with a switch to online learning, regardless of whether they were comfortable doing so; had to adjust to limits on socializing; and may have missed out on programs like internships and study abroad opportunities that were canceled due to COVID-19.

Students are also having to navigate “the shortcomings of adults who are supposed to make the world manageable and a good place to be,” Owens says. “The pandemic violated student, campus and family expectations.”

So it may be helpful to start by asking your child a question: “What would you like to accomplish this summer?”

If they don’t have a ready response, think about people you might know who could use their help with yardwork or around the office. Or you might offer to pay for a couple of extra hands to help with projects around the house.

Just be sure you’re not so overambitious in your assistance that you invite underperformance, warns Schafer. Or that you’re simply handing over money for new clothes or video games when asked.

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“I use the expression ‘Fat dogs don’t hunt,’ ” she says, explaining that kids aren’t motivated to look for a job if their parents buy them everything they want. “Job one is for parents to step back a bit. It might look a little ugly and sloppy for a little bit, but when the rubber hits the road, you’d be amazed at how kids suddenly pick up initiative and get stuff done when you stop rescuing them.”

‘Nagging doesn’t work’

Brice Meade
Brice Meade is trying to get his daughter to be more productive.
Courtesy of Michele Ashlee Meade

Brice Meade, 50, has a tactic for helping to motivate his 18-year-old daughter, who just finished her freshman year at college — and is in danger of flunking out. He made it clear that she’s welcome to stay with him as long as she holds down her summer job as a camp counselor and saves half of her earnings in case she winds up having to leave school.

In the meantime, Meade, who lives in Rochester, New York, is trying to inspire his daughter to be less idle when she’s at home.

Understanding that entertainment these days often translates to staring at screens inside, he’ll knock on her bedroom door when the sun is out and say, “It’s a beautiful day. Want to go outside?” Or if she says she’s hungry but can’t find anything to eat, he’ll ask, “Want to go grab dinner somewhere? Then we can walk it off.”

“I have learned at this point in life that nagging doesn’t work,” he says. “Instead, I look for opportunities to employ coaching techniques.”

And, Meade admits, “I’m not going to lie. Strategically, I don’t keep a lot of food in the house, so we can have those moments.”

Model appropriate behavior

Actions speak louder than words, which means that adults who want to communicate about responsibility in a healthy way, according to Owens, need to be civil when doing so.

“It’s important to model appropriate responses — this is the hallmark of good parenting,” says Owens. “Modeling is the best way to change behavior and to communicate respect for your kid.”

Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids and other parenting books, agrees: “This isn’t about forcing compliance. It’s about winning cooperation.” It’s perfectly reasonable, for example, to spell out conditions for continuing to live under your roof, she says. Calmly suggest that if those conditions aren’t met, the child is welcome to live elsewhere, perhaps with a roommate.

“At some point, we have to think about our young adult children not as children but as boarders who are renting a room from us and expected to have some basic common decency in getting along with fellow tenants in the house,” Schafer says. “That can help create a more egalitarian premise to have the conversation.”

Still, keep the different ages and maturity levels in mind. And be prepared for a bit of pushback. Just try to keep your cool by not overreacting, not taking any back talk personally, and being prepared to walk away for a brief break if tensions escalate too much.

“Expect resistance and roll with it,” Owens says. “But make sure your expectations for your child are met.”

Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children’s book M Is for Mindful.​