"It's weird to think they're getting it on in the house. I just go into my room, turn up my music really loud, and hope that I won't hear them." Twenty years ago, baby boomers like me were making comments like these about our parents. Now we're on the other side of the generation gap; the quotation above actually comes from middle-aged parents who were asked how they feel about their grown children arriving home for the holidays with a new romantic partner in tow. Everyone agrees that this situation can lead to epic awkwardness, with parents as well as children nervously trying to figure out unspoken rules. Should "little" Billy (who is now 6'5") bunk in his old bedroom with his new girlfriend? Does Jenny's shifty-eyed suitor get the guest room, and will Jenny join him there?
Of course, there's no single answer that works for every family. We live in a time of wildly varied attitudes toward sexuality, and no one is out to dictate what you feel or believe. But while unspoken conflicts over your kids' sexual behavior can create tension and emotional distance between family members, remembering a few simple principles can make it almost a non-issue. In fact, if you communicate with clarity and kindness, this potentially embarrassing matter can become the foundation for mutual respect and support between you and your grown children.
Just Say It
Most parents and children share a reluctance to talk to each other about their sex lives, and this is a good thing. The "Ew!" response indicates healthy boundaries between generations; I doubt that either you or your grown children would want to banter about details of sexual intercourse while setting the holiday table. But acting as though your little sweeties would never Go All the Way is almost as nutty. Over 75 percent of college students are sexually active, according to several studies. Another study, by the nonprofit research group Child Trends, found that more than half of adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 had sex for the first time in their own home or their partner's.
Given these realities, you can't assume that Junior expects you to install his girlfriend on the sofa bed while he retires in footie pajamas to his Muppet-themed bedroom. Often, however, young adults who have sex in their parents' home tend to wait until the 'rents are gone. And it's possible that your young lovers aren't even having sex—and that they'd be shocked, shocked I tell you, if you offered them only one bed. Unless you explicitly discuss sleeping arrangements, everyone will be left guessing.
So be direct. Determine your boundaries and state them clearly to your children, preferably on the phone and before the holiday visit. Practice your lines ahead of time, so you can just spit them out and get it over with. Here are some possible scripts:
"Listen, honey, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I'm just not comfortable with you and Chris sharing a room here. You're still my baby, and it makes me feel strange."
"You and Pat are welcome to sleep in the guest room together, but, please, make sure you lock the door."
"If separate beds aren't okay for you guys, then let's talk about getting you a hotel room."
If you find yourself tongue-tied, call a friend for brainstorming assistance. The only requirement is that you identify your real feelings and then express them without ambiguity or apology.
Focus on Your Boundaries, Not Theirs
You may have noticed that none of the sample scripts provided above includes sensitive, evenhanded negotiations with your children about rooming preferences. That's because, in your home, it's both your right and your responsibility to define boundaries. In this situation, your unilateral decision is necessary for a happy outcome.
Recently, Helen E. Johnson, coauthor of Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years, told an interviewer: "I think too many parents today want to be their kids' friends, and—sort of by default, not intentionally—they abrogate that important parental responsibility, which is making it really clear to your kids what your values are.... What I found working with college students is that they really care what their parents think about these things, and they generally don't know."
Your job is to set limits; your children's job is to push them. If your children argue with you, listen respectfully but don't allow yourself to be trampled on in the name of parental love. Establish and hold boundaries that allow you to feel most relaxed in your own home. This will give your children a powerful example to follow as they venture into the labyrinthine complexities of adult life.
If I were to tell you that your fornicating children are demon spawn who should be summarily disowned or that all parents who don't encourage free love are frigid, puritanical freaks, I suspect you might find my opinion a tad offensive. Although it's enlightening to hear other people honestly discuss their values, rigid judgment almost invariably creates anxiety and, usually, backlash. It makes people feel unheard and unsafe. Clarifying boundaries strengthens the emotional connection between you and your children, but passing judgment will only drive a wedge between you.
The difference is in communication patterns. When you voice your limits, describe your feelings without trying to pass universal laws for other people's sexual behavior. We teach young children that when someone's actions give them an "icky" feeling, they can and should say no. Well, what your kids understood at 3, they will also understand at 23. "I'm sorry, Sandy, it makes me feel icky to have you two sleeping together on the other side of the bedroom wall" is a much more honest statement than the judgmental, "No child of mine will engage in lustful behavior under my roof!" If you stick to discussing your own feelings and experiences rather than moral generalities, your children will be much more likely to honor your point of view.
With a little honest, fearless communication, the uneasy issue of who sleeps where during the holidays can actually help form a new relationship between parents and their grown children—a relationship in which putting conditions on rooming arrangements makes space for unconditional love, and family members of all generations rejoice in one another's sexual fulfillment...as long as they don't have to think too much about it.