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How to Avoid Fighting With Your Parents While Home for Christmas Break

December 26th, 2008 · 16 comments

Study BreakA Christmas Tradition…

It’s a tradition as deeply ingrained as overdosing on eggnog or decorating the tree: college students home for the holidays getting into fights with their parents about school. There are uncountably many different ways for these fights to be kindled, but once raging they fall into one of two predictable paths: the always popular “you don’t understand how hard I study” theme and the well-worn classic “I know everything and you’re hopelessly naive.”

This post, in the spirit of the season, teaches you how to avoid such brawls. Below are three simple pieces of advice. Give them a read now and the vacation days ahead might just remain merry. 

Tip #1: Talk Strategy, Not Effort

Here’s a common path to a student/parent fight: The student mentions a grade he’s not thrilled about. The parent suggests that the student works harder. The student launches into a speech about how many hours he spends studying, and how everyone in the class did poorly — even the ones who were really, really smart — and how there are simply not any more hours in the day left for him to study, etc., etc. The parents consider the difficulty of their jobs and child rearing and decide that they’re not impressed. They suggest, once again, that the student work harder.  The fight escalates.

You can sidestep this hornets nest altogether by always moving the conversation back to strategy. When discussing a class with a parent, never refer to the amount of work you did, instead discuss your strategy. Talk about how you took notes and how you structured your review. Mention what changes you’re going to make to your study strategies for the next semester. This is safe ground. The discussion is not about your character — are you working enough? — but about strategy. At best, your parents might offer some complements or a few tactical suggestions that you can likely ignore. The fight, however, will be avoided.

Tip #2: Don’t Reference Your Classes in Heated Discussions

Another common fight-igniter begins with the standard high-energy family discussion. Maybe you’re talking politics or making a judgment on a larger societal problem. After a while, some of your relatives start making strong, somewhat overgeneralized statements. Your college-honed instincts begin to scream: That’s a generalization! It’s more complicated than that! Soon you’re fervently preaching a high-level — probably incomplete — version of whatever you learned in your freshman philosophy seminar, committing to it like it’s the Rosetta Stone to all of human understanding. At some point, you’re accused of being an obnoxious know-it-all. The fight escalates.

My advice here might be controversial: don’t bring up what you learned in class. At least, not in the context of a heated discussion. (It’s okay, in casual  one-on-one conversation to say “let me tell you about something I learned that was really interesting.”) In a large family argument, however, referencing your latest class always — and I really mean always– makes things worse.  Instead, while in a heated conversation, focus more on understanding the core of peoples’ views. Try to separate the kernel of truth (which is almost always present) from the veneer of over-generalization (which for non-academics is also almost aways present). These kernels often contain real learned-wisdom, and it’s a good intellectual exercise to parse them out. Restate other peoples’ views, rather than push in your own.  Everyone will remain happier.

Tip #3: Discuss your Strategy for Choosing a Major (or Classes), Not Your Actual Choice(s)

As I’ve said before, certain decisions are best left to yourself. Namely: your major and courses. There’s no quicker path to a student burnout than feeling like you’re killing yourself to please a parent’s view of what’s practical. And nothing ignites a fight faster than a dinner table discussion of what you’re going to do after graduation with an Art History degree. (The answer, by the way, is that outside of the technical fields the idea that your major should match your work is outdated and incorrect.)

The solution here is simple: Don’t discuss your choices. Instead, discuss your strategy for making these choices. What’s your goal for your major? Is it engagement? Job options? Pushing your mind to new levels of insight? These big-picture issues are non-contentious. They also helps explain the why behind your eventual choices, putting you and your parents on the same page for the eventual decisions.

16 thoughts on “How to Avoid Fighting With Your Parents While Home for Christmas Break

  1. Kay says:

    Why let yourself be dragged into these discussions at all?
    Basically, many parents have no idea about the topics you mentioned.

    #1: Most likely your parents do not know either how hard your classes are or how hard your major is, or even what your major is about. If your parents went to college at all, it’s been 20+ years ago; things might have changed a little bit. You, on the opposite, know exactly how hard your classes are, how many people failed it, how much work you put in. If you know you did everything you could (if you didn’t, your parents might have a point), why justify yourself so eagerly? Why not just say “I studied very hard and effectively for this class, but it didn’t work out” or something?
    #2: Again: Why engage in pointless arguments? There’s nothing wrong with discussing something with your family; but you seem to be talking about these heated discussions in particular. Why bother about them? From my experience, it’s just not worth trying to persuade a grandfather who thinks that “all [insert foreign people] take away our jobs!!!” or something.

    #3: Again: what’s the point? How many parents know the market conditions for music majors? How many parents know the market conditions for ANY major?

    Finally: To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

  2. Joseph Sinay says:

    Thanks for the tips although I could’ve used it two days earlier. Fortunately the heated argument didn’t escalate into a rumble or anything like that but Christmas would’ve been much merrier if it didn’t occur.

    Relatives seem to think that the amount of time studying is more important than the strategy used in studying.

    I also wonder, what if the reasons for choosing a major isn’t rational even though the major is a technical course and will most likely pay off well in the future? If it’s like that, wouldn’t it be better to discuss the choice instead?

  3. Nejka Galun says:

    Thank you, Cal, for this advice!
    I find it really useful and will apply it right away both in my family situations, as well as in situations with some of my acquaintances.

    Best wishes to you!

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Why let yourself be dragged into these discussions at all?

    An even better strategy, though sometimes such avoidance efforts don’t always succeed…

    I also wonder, what if the reasons for choosing a major isn’t rational even though the major is a technical course and will most likely pay off well in the future? If it’s like that, wouldn’t it be better to discuss the choice instead?

    What do you mean by not rational? I think having an intuitive attraction to a subject is a perfectly valid selection criteria!

  5. PR says:

    Hey Cal,

    Any suggestions on what to do when you have exams and theses due after the break, but your parents are on vacation and drag you along to all the sites? I’ve been getting five hours of sleep just so that I can wake up before everyone to start my work (they don’t let me sleep early). Any tips?

  6. Joseph Sinay says:

    What do you mean by not rational? I think having an intuitive attraction to a subject is a perfectly valid selection criteria!

    Yes, that’s kind of what I meant when I said “not rational”. I can hardly explain how strange it is to have an “intuitive attraction” to such a technical (and, according to my high school friends, a boring) major (Accounting).

    As much as I love analyzing financial statements, saying that would hardly qualify as a rational reason.

    I think that saying i went for the major because of the job opportunities or money would satisfy my parents’ questions.

    Happy Holidays!

  7. Philip R. says:

    What happens if you have the opposite problem over the holidays–you want to work and your parents would rather travel and have you go out with them? I’m finding it pretty difficult to juggle a thesis and exams over the break, especially when I don’t have any hours that are set (rather, I’m just left with arbitrary “free” time which could range from 1-7 hours per day).

  8. Evelyn says:

    Oh, this is such a sweet advice, and very well put.
    Had I seen it before the holidays, I’d have been grateful for it, knowing how holidays generally are. But I just returned from my parents and we didn’t have a single fight, not even a discussion!
    The easiest strategy is: Don’t mention classes, majors, exams, or anything uni-related altogether (it IS difficult). And don’t talk about your parents’ jobs (they need a break too!), not even about doing the dishes – just do them :) Worked perfectly well for me. We had a wonderfully peaceful, quiet, relaxed Christmas!

    You know, life is soooo much more than studying, career, work…

    Just my two (Euro-) cents

    Have a happy New Year everyone.

  9. JC says:

    Wow…I thought college home fights were isolated incidents, but I guess parents are quite similar all around. Very revealing, and I definitely agree with the advice.

  10. The thing that always gets me is that my mum, no matter what, INSISTS that its the number of hours you put in. Being back home is nice for the food etc, but realy, sometimes you wonder if its worth it! It’s *always* the number of hours. Nothing less than 6-8 hours of hard study a day will get you a 1st. And we all know that that’s rubbish!

    Happy Holidays!

  11. Oh did I mention she only got a 2:1 and went to the same kind of university as me (in the rankings)?! Typical!

  12. Study Hacks says:

    The thing that always gets me is that my mum, no matter what, INSISTS that its the number of hours you put in.

    I would suggest either buying her a copy of STRAIGHT-A, or following Evelyn’s strategy of refusing to even mention anything related to university!

  13. Study Hacks says:

    What happens if you have the opposite problem over the holidays–you want to work and your parents would rather travel and have you go out with them?

    You can get good work done while traveling (it’s basically adventure studying) you just have to make clear plans in advance about when and where you are going to work. See this article from last year for some tips on holiday break work:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/12/19/5-tips-for-working-effectively-over-christmas-break/

  14. JT says:

    Your advice was really helpful. I really tried to avoid talking about classes this semester, but I felt like I had to because my parents have so much hope in me to do well in college compared to my older brother.
    I just had a fight with my mom over my D+ in Physics for Non-Scientists (classical and modern physics minus the mathematical work). I took it as my science gen ed class that has no effect on my classes for my major. It’s nice being back home. However, it’s worse when you have to tell your parents you’re not getting Dean’s List because of one lone grade, and they guilt trip you, saying that you didn’t concentrate enough on physics and you concentrated more on your relationship, why didn’t you ask for help, etc. Then they have a negative attitude towards you for a day or two. I wished I never brought it up :(.

  15. Kelly Sutton says:

    To those wondering how to get their parents to let them to do work:

    In my experiences home this Christmas break, it’s not necessarily them that is the problem. Rather parents an easy scapegoat for your own procrastination. Set up specific work times, establish a makeshift working environment and stick to it.

    After becoming more aware of exactly what was preventing me from getting work done, I started being productive again. It did require me to be curt with them at one point, but no hard feelings (I hope).

  16. Devin Willis says:

    As a parent I really enjoyed this post and comments. It will help me take steps at becoming a better father. I think everyone can become part of the solution vs. the problem. You all gave some great solutions!

    Thank You,

    Devin

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