Saturday, February 12, 2011

Giving Your Children Roots and Wings

The phone call, coming in early one morning on the telephone line I used for my part-time Northwestern University admissions work, was startling in its urgency and insistence. The caller was a woman I'll call Patti, whose daughter Madison I had interviewed a year before. Madison was now enrolled as a theater major at Northwestern.

"Kathy, I have to ask a favor of you," Patti said, her voice tense. "Madison has a problem. The acting teacher in the class she was assigned this quarter is not top notch. This is unacceptable. I have issues with the way she is being taught. I need you to to fix this."

Before letting her know that, as a part-time regional admissions representative, I had no power -- or business -- in trying to influence academic assignments, I asked the question most on my mind: "How does Madison feel about this class?"

There was a sigh on the other end of the line. "Oh, she likes this teacher a lot," Patti said at last. "I just think she could do better."

"As long as Madison is happy in the class and feels she's learning something, do you really want to try to change things?" I asked.

Another pause. Another sigh. "I thought you would understand and be more helpful," she said, before hanging up the phone.

I thought about her bright, talented young daughter who, after a rocky, tearful first quarter of learning she was one among many talented young people in her class instead of an automatic star,  was beginning to settle in, eager to learn and grow. And I thought about how hard it is for parents to let go and trust that all will be well with their young adult children.

I thought back to the day that I left home to attend Northwestern. It was a radical concept. I had never seen the campus, never known anyone who went there, had never flown before, had never traveled alone. My parents couldn't afford to accompany me from Los Angeles to Chicago.

My mother kissed me and hugged me tight, then stepped quickly away as my father and I left for the airport. My father, true to form, regaled me enroute to LAX with one of his famous melodramatic Irish father "death speeches": "You know I'm not well and I may die before you come home for Christmas. If I do, I just want you to know that I love you and am proud of you." I squeezed back my tears and willed myself not to cry. As the plane was boarding, he held me one last time. "My baby," he said, his voice breaking slightly. Then he let me go.

Once on the plane, I broke into wracking sobs.  A kind older woman -- an angel for sure -- moved from two rows behind to sit beside me and hold me, reassuring me that college would be a wonderful adventure, that I'd just love Chicago, that it was O.K. to be scared. My spirits rose even more when volunteer Northwestern students greeted me warmly in the baggage claim area of O'Hare and transported me to campus. Once I met my roommate Cheryl, a kindred spirit, I cheered up considerably. Together, we went to a welcome address given by the Dean of Students, who concluded his comments by saying "In all the excitement of starting your new life here, don't forget the people who made this possible by letting you come here. Your parents are missing you tonight. Go back to your rooms right now and write to your parents. Tell them another Dad said 'Hello.'" I thought about what it had taken for my parents to let me go....and went to my dorm room immediately to write a letter thanking them and telling them how happy I was (leaving out all the crying stuff).

The scenario is somewhat different today. Young adults are, in general, more sophisticated, more well traveled. And yet, it seems harder for many to leave the nest. During my 20 years of part-time college admissions work, I spent a lot of time before and after college fairs trading stories with reps from other schools about the separation difficulties that students and parents seemed to have. And at Northwestern -- as with most other schools these days -- there was talk of the dreaded helicopter parents who, in some extreme cases, would want to sleep in their kids' dorm rooms for the first week or, like Patti, seek to influence class assignments or call professors about a problem instead of letting their sons or daughters resolve the matter.  Such over-involvement was actively discouraged, though parental concerns were respected. It was a delicate balance.  And, at the same time,  Student Services was reporting an expansion of student mental health services.

For some young adults, going to college or getting that first tiny, shared apartment is a step down from the way they've been living. For someone who has always had his or her own room, laundry and meals provided by Mom, dorm living can be a shock. For someone who has been praised non-stop by proud parents, arriving on campus to find that just about everyone they meet has similar if not more stellar achievements can be a tough dose of reality. For young people leaving home to work and live on their own, adjusting to work schedules, employer expectations, the realities of living with non-relatives and doing all the tasks of daily survival oneself can be, at least initially, daunting. But it's all essential preparation for the demands of adult living.

But many young adults today seem stuck in childhood and, at times,  parental collusion is obvious.

Not long ago, while visiting a friend who is well known for her independence, competence and general "I don't take any shit from anyone" attitude, I was shocked when her 19-year-old daughter (still living at home, taking an occasional community college course and vague on her plans for the future) came into the kitchen, interrupting our conversation and barked one word at her mother: "Artichokes!" Her mother got up immediately.

"Oh, you want artichokes," she said. "I'll make some right away."

My mouth fell open. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And I wondered when, how or if this young woman would ever fly free of the nest.

Even though economic realities make independent living more challenging for young adults today who may face the triple whammy of low-paying first jobs, high student loans and steep rents, leaving home emotionally can be even more of a challenge.

As parents, we need to love our kids and trust their competence enough to let them go. We need to recognize the consequences of holding on.

My childhood friend Mary, the mother of three adult children now on their own, told me recently that "it can be very painful to know that your children don't really need you anymore, at least not on a daily basis. But I didn't want to do to them what I've seen too many people doing to their children -- insisting on remaining the center of their universe -- which can really limit their lives. And so, as hard as it was for me,  I let go."

The old saying about the necessity of giving our children roots and wings is so true. Giving children a firm sense of values and a sense of who they are and where they come from before sending them out into the world is critical.  And so is giving them wings to fly.

There are many elements that build these wings.  There are independent living skills to learn when they're still at home, increasing responsibilities for their own daily survival so that doing for themselves is second nature.  There is the growing sense of competence in fighting their own battles, resolving their own problems -- perhaps with your encouragement and advice but no more than that.  There is the gift of your letting go, letting them know that it's O.K. to go, to be scared, to be unsure, to be excited as they venture out of the nest.

My sister Tai, who is ten years younger than I am, recently told me that my departure for college was one of the most vivid memories of her childhood.  It was interesting to hear about that memorable day from her perspective: how our mother had cried after I walked out the door, how our father had wondered aloud if he would ever see me again, how in awe she had been of my resolve to go to a college 2,000 miles away.  "I thought that it was the bravest thing I had ever seen anyone do," she said. "When you walked out of the house to get on that plane for Chicago, I thought it was just incredible. You were so brave!"

I thought back on the moment and, with the perspective of time,  just how much it had cost my parents emotionally to let go and let me fly away. I felt the love and tears in my mother's hug. I heard the love and fear in my father's unique goodbye.  And I thought about how brave my parents had been, how trusting in my competence, to let me go.  And, all these years later,  I whispered a heartfelt thanks to them both.

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