This article represents some thoughts and observations I've gained over the years in my role in Student Services at a University in Colorado, with the hope that it may help parents and students prepare for that huge step in life known as "college".
The goal for most parents is to raise kids to leave home and become adults. Without getting too technical, most of us will agree that this means celebrating our kids' achievement of some adult milestones, such as: leaving home to establish their own residence, establishing financial independence, completing school (whether it be high school, vocational/trade, or higher education), moving into full-time employment, getting married, and perhaps becoming a parent.
However, for most parents, it's not enough to simply raise adults - we want our kids to be happy, healthy, successful adults. For those of us who are Christians, we add to this list that we also want our children to grow up to be Christ-followers.
Unfortunately, I daily see the consequences of young adults who are not yet ready for life. 18-year-olds who cannot cook, clean, or care for themselves. Students who are "legal" adults, but who are unable to self-advocate, self-regulate, or accurately self-assess strengths and weaknesses, or navigate adult choices on their own. Students in this category can be blown about by the winds and whims of friends and pop culture. But I believe this trap is avoidable.
If we can agree that "The Goal" of parents is to raise Christ-following adults (students to become Christ-followers) who can successfully navigate life, we need to talk about the timeline for this. In other words, we don't start cooking Christmas dinner without first figuring out what time the food needs to be ready. Plenty of prep-work the day before, the bird goes in at 10am, the peas and carrots at noon, etc., so the entire meal is ready to be served by a pre-established dinner time. I fear though, if some of us cooked Christmas dinner the way we parent, we'd be eating at midnight…if ever. The reality is we need to look at the finish line, and then start backing out a timeline based on what we know about life, and what we know about our kids. Here's a thought: with a newborn in our arms, we have 884 weeks to parent our kids until their 18th birthday.
In our culture, I would suggest that the finish-line needs to be basic readiness at 18 years old, at the latest, and earlier if possible. While that age may seem young to some in today's culture, let's look at some historical context.
Young people are capable of a lot, if we don't hold them back. Here are some examples:
Anne Frank - At age 13 she began writing what was to become one of the most powerful pieces of literature written.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - At age 13, he wrote the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto. Louis Braille - At age 15, he began formulating the Braille alphabet and system of writing.
Joan of Arc - By 16 she had resisted an arranged marriage and successfully convinced a local court that she should not be forced to accept the match. By the age of 17 she asked the Crown Prince to allow her to lead an army against the English. He did…and she did.
PFC Jacklyn H. Lucas, USMC - Days after his 17th birthday, during the battle of Iwo Jima, Jack jumped over two Marines in order to fall on two (2) Japanese hand grenades and save his men. He survived - and for this incredible act of heroism, Jack was awarded the Medal of Honor.
John D. Rockefeller and Steve Jobs - By age 19, both men started businesses that would become world-changing juggernauts.
Generations past were expected to step up and help out the family and take responsibility in their early to mid-teen years. How do the young people of "yesteryear" compare with young people today? For starters, our young people are not acting like "adults", or at least not as some generations (X & Boomers) would understand it. Today, more young adults (18-34 year olds) are living at home with their parents, then at any time since the Great Depression. A smaller percentage of our young adults are married with children than at any time since we have been keeping record (20% today, compared with 50% in 1970).
In our culture, we have made a "god" out of youth…and that has consequences. If 40 is the new 20, why would we be surprised that 20 is the new 10? Allow me to make an honest observation: the number of 18-year-olds who show up on a college campus ready - really ready - for the college experience is dwindling, and fast. Unfortunately, I see no difference between Christian young adults, and their non-believing friends.
Considering our children's success, how much is attributable to our intervention and monitoring? Harping on our student to finish their homework; pressuring their youth sports coach to ensure playing time; calling another parent to try and settle a dispute between their child and ours, etc. There is a time when these moments of intervention are appropriate. However, if we don't have a plan to start "weaning" them off our parenting interventions well before they leave the home, not surprisingly, they will continue to require it in our absence.
I have watched and experienced example after example of young adults (18-24 year olds) walk into my office, led by their parents, only to sit quietly and have their parents speak and advocate for them on matters large and small - grades, misconduct, a bad roommate, whatever. A scene you would expect in an elementary school…not a university.
We live in a culture where parents are increasingly having to fight the urge, or perhaps the expectation, to bubble-wrap our kids, to hover over them like "helicopter parents" or precede them to remove every barrier ("snowplow parents"), thus protecting them from a world gone crazy. This challenge is afflicting all parents, but we as Christians have a different road map…or at least we should.
I want to both challenge and encourage us. The challenge for Christian parents is to raise Christ-following adults who are ready to leave home at 18. In today's world, this is a tall order. Make no mistake, we are fighting a serious headwind. But I think there are several things we can commit to as parents that can make achieving "The Goal" easier…and yes students, it's OK to keep reading.
First, let's not worry about being liked by our kids. As is true with our marriages, our satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy must come from the Lord, not from our children. Resist the temptation to be liked or be "friends" in favor of accomplishing "The Goal".
Let's be ok with letting them scrape their knee, fail a test, or get cut from the team roster. Don't we want them to fail when they are still in our care so we can teach them how to overcome it? After all, failure will come. It's like gravity. The question is simply when, and how big the failure, and how they will overcome it.
Related to letting them fail is allowing them to be honest in their self-assessment. Are they terrible at soccer? Then don't tell them they're great at it! We don't need to be critical or condescending in order to be honest. If we are not honest with our feedback, why would we be surprised when they wake up at 18 and realize this inflated identity is false, and then start to spin out of control? Let's be honest with them! Some tips: don't praise "talent" or "smarts"; these are not earned and kids have no control over these things. Praise work ethic, good choices, responsibility, tenacity, etc., which are learned/earned behaviors.
An important caveat: Kids need to have conversations - in a safe place - about mental health and how to recognize problems and get help in the instance they are not well. The ultimate manifestation of this is suicide, which is a tragedy that affects us all, and it is absolutely avoidable.
Make them work! Cook, clean, chop firewood, learn skills, earn a paycheck, be accountable - these things are not magically imparted to them through osmosis on their 18th birthday. They need to practice working early, so they can be good at it when it counts. This is true whether they go on to a vocation, the military, college/university, etc.
Healthy relationships, healthy relationships, healthy relationships. Probably the toughest task on our list, but we have to be committed to this. Too dominant, too passive, moving too quickly, too eager to please, too hungry for attention, etc. - early habits with friends can become patterns that result in awful outcomes as young adults. Let's be committed to modeling, and guiding, healthy relationships, both romantic as well as platonic friendships.
Finally, let's be committed to "getting messy." By this I mean, let's hit real life head-on in conversations with our children. Hook-up culture and Tinder? It's real. Let's talk about it. Readily available drugs and alcohol? Yup, that's a fact, let's chat. LGBTQ questions, relationships, perhaps even some private feelings they're having? Time for a real conversation. If you're uncomfortable or feeling awkward about these topics, imagine how much more they must be. If our kids bring up a difficult issue and we silence them through verbal or non-verbal communication, it will likely come up again when they leave home. The point is not that parents have all the answers, but rather that we teach kids a Christ-centered method to work through the toughest issues life has to offer, so that they can manage things on their own when the time comes.
The encouraging note in all of this is that "The Goal" is achievable, and we are not walking this journey alone. I'm certain it can be accomplished, because I do see some young adults who are, in fact, ready. There are young adults who care well for themselves and others, who make good choices, and manage their finances and relationships well.
Parents and students can achieve "The Goal"…the train has already left the station…let's catch up and climb onboard.
Vice President for Student Services - CMU