Summer shift may challenge the constraints of usual family life

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

It’s that time of year again, when family reconfigures itself.

Final exams send our college kids homeward while end-of-the-year celebrations launch our younger children into the unstructured days of summer.

Clockwork routines relax into summer camps, part-time jobs and travel. We welcome the new rhythm, but feel the bumps of recalibration. Multiple agendas sometimes conflict as new opportunities reprioritize family traditions.

For the returning college crew, multiple cars packed with a freshman’s “necessities” become a solo trip home packed with an upper-classman’s “essentials.” They have learned what they need and how to manage it — an impressive transformation.

My own soon-to-be senior arrived in early May.

After a welcoming hug, I realized our two worlds intersected in the middle of my driveway. Her overpacked vehicle bulged with unmade decisions awaiting entry to my home.

In previous summers, I had experienced the cost of the indecisive “unload and dump” philosophy when my family room, kitchen and garage housed college trappings for weeks.

Daily, I cringed with the clutter and pace of the organizational work-in-progress. So this year I took the lead, loading up my lap and my wheelchair and helped my daughter cart her belongings to the appropriate locations.

Laundry went to the sorting bin. Electronics and books were stacked on the dining room table. All the suitcases, clothes and toiletries were deposited upstairs, out of my sight, as they awaited further analysis.

I had bridled the chaos.

Our parental challenge is to help them reframe their newfound independence to the context of their family home.

Do last-minute reunions trump a scheduled family gathering? Do summer jobs preempt family vacations? And what about the cooking, the cleanups, the laundry and the ubiquitous, “put things back where you found them” lament?

Granted, we want them to grow, become self-reliant and self-sustaining. However, their lifestyles may differ significantly from ours. Our finely tuned patterns of living can short-circuit quickly if unchecked change blasts too rapidly into our homes.

What boundaries are worth holding onto?

During one college visit years ago, a parent asked the admissions speaker about their freshman honors program. Although the program was designed for 200 top students, anyone could take an honors course if the class had room. He deemed the program “highly selective with permeable borders.”

Sounds like a good definition of family to me.

Yes, there are borders in the family unit, the highly selective kind that keep us connected and focused on the values we want to teach our children. Regular time together cements lifelong bonds.

Yet if permeable, these borders allow the free flow of new people and plans. There’s a special joy we experience when we get to know the friends of our children. Whether it’s a new classmate, teammate, boyfriend or girlfriend, these additions give us a window into our child like no other, enriching both the child and the family unit.

Family is a living, breathing entity, with an unlimited capacity for growth and enrichment. Filled with old traditions and new adventures, it is often reconfigured, but never changed at its core. It, too, learns what it needs and how to manage it.