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How to Have a Successful Holiday Family Reunion

For those traveling for the holidays, SPA professor Lara Schwartz discusses some strategies on how to make the best of your family reunions during the holidays.

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SPA professor Lara Schwartz spends much of her time studying and understanding difficult conversation.  

Schwartz is the founding director of AU's Project on Civil Discourse, which offers students opportunities to have conversations about matters relating to free speech and campus dialogue and particularly dialogue across differences.  

She teaches students about free speech and academic freedom and trains people to lead discussions utilizing active listening and dialogue facilitation techniques.  

As the holiday season approaches, Schwartz has some strategies and suggestions about how to make the best of your family reunions.  

TWAU: So how does your work connect with this idea of preparing students and families for their time together over the holidays? 

Lara Schwartz: These past couple of years have been an interesting time, to say the least. I teach some first-year classes, and I am especially interested in the transition to college. I co-wrote with another former AU colleague, Andrea Brenner, a book called How to College: What to Know Before You Go (And When You’re There) that's about the college transition because becoming a college student is hard work, and it’s one that often isn’t discussed explicitly enough. It's true that college work is harder in some ways—the academic requirements and the questions asked of students can be more sophisticated. But a lot of the transition is going from being home with family to being the person in charge of your life. Students at home with families might have a parent reminding them when to wake up or helping them navigate challenges with teachers, coaches, or the school. But college students living on campus must be what my co-author and I call “the dean of me.” Each student is really tasked with overseeing their college experience. And that person who goes home for Thanksgiving is different in that important way, which means the relationship has changed too.

TWAU: The student and the family are coming back together in some cases for the first time since the student left for college. What are the changes could occur that may affect your relationships?  

LS: One basic one is you go to college, and you go from being somebody who was considered a kid to being considered an adult. You're used to being in conversations with your professors or the people in your dorms.  

I think students come back from college being more assertive. They're used to really being adults, so parents and family members might find the person who was more deferential might be more assertive. You might have left a part of the country that was more conservative and have come to very progressive DC. Students might be much more accustomed to living in that environment with that set of ideas, and they [those ideas] can clash upon returning home. Some things are a little bit mundane like college life tends to be very late-night affairs, and that's not how houses with parents and people with day jobs necessarily are going to operate.  

Are you supposed to be a high school kid again because you're under that roof? Or are you more of a peer because you're an adult now as you've been treated on your college campus? I don't know that there's one right answer to that, but I think an important thing is for students and their families to have a conversation about it. And it can include everything from now that I'm home, do I have to text to tell you where I am? That's not something I was doing when I was on campus.

TWAU: What is an explicit conversation about expectations?  

LS: Are you going to be expected to do the things that you did? Is the family attending religious services that you might or might not have attended when you got to campus? You need to be explicit about what's expected of one another. To students I'd say, you know your family. It's really exciting to go to college and be exposed to reading amazing books and have in-depth conversations with people. You can be swept up in that, but remembering the people you come home to, it's not they care less about the public good than you do. They're just not college students making the discoveries and the journey that you're on.  

To parents, I would say if you find this person has changed, if they have stronger or different opinions or they're more assertive with you, remember that people need to respect each other. What you're seeing is the expected outcome of that transition toward adulthood. They're going to be outspoken, and they're going to be enthusiastic in that way.  

TWAU: Hundreds of thousands of students have gone home for the holidays and not had this conversation with their families. Why is it important to do that?  

LS: The holidays can be so wonderful, and a lot of us have fantastic memories of Thanksgivings. But they can also be stressful times. Students are leaving a community that they really care about, and they might have formed attachments. So, Thanksgiving can mean giving up a little freedom or giving up some people that you've come to rely on. For the family at home, it's the opposite of that. You’re getting back the person that you've kind of lost. And,so, you're experiencing this reunion very differently. That difference in how the student and the family members are experiencing Thanksgiving is really emotionally important, and naming that and acknowledging that is important. Mom's delighted to have you back, but you're missing maybe a best friend or boyfriend and a place that you take comfort.  

I think saying in advance, “Here's what I'm hoping to get out of this time, this first time that we're all together again,” can just make it so that everybody has the Thanksgiving they want. I do feel like conversations are just the best tool that we have for helping to take care of one another emotionally and make sure we're cultivating our kindness to one another.  

TWAU: What if I experience bias at the dining table?  

LS: One thing about family is that most of the time, we're talking about relationships that we really value and people that we hope to have relationships with deep into the future. This isn't the Internet where we block you. An enormously powerful way to be supportive of justice and assert the imperative for fairness and equity and kindness is to call someone in, versus calling someone out. Calling someone in is a way of taking a restorative approach saying, “You've caused some hurt; you've caused some harm. You've said something that's hurtful to others or that hurts me.” But calling someone in is a way of offering them an education and hoping they come to understand that you understand. That can often be a good approach for family members whom you care about and now and presumably trust you. It could be to take time with someone one-to-one and say, “I just want to let you know how I felt about the thing you said.”  

So instead of saying, “You have been racist, or you have been biased,” you can say, “When I hear you speak that way, it surprises me, it makes me feel like you aren't showing kindness to people the way you show kindness towards me, and I'd really like to talk to you about that.” I do think that for each of us, we're going to decide how we address bias in our families and in our communities. Individually, it's possible that you are someone who holds a minority viewpoint in your household, and your critique might not be well taken. You could have a very bad Thanksgiving if you express an outlying concern. I think each person can choose what they can handle in a moment, and they're sort of clear-eyed assessment of whether we can be helpful.