Before I had two college coeds of my own I spent over twenty years supervising college students and prior to that I was a college student myself. I have watched in live-time dramatic changes that were discussed in a recent Huffington Post article that a former colleague had posted (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Mickey-goodman/are-we-raising-a-generati_b_1249706.html) that resonated with what many of my own observations have been. While I agree with the writer, I have developed an even more controversial theory.
I think that how people go through life is substantially predetermined by their makeup. This is how you end up with stories of identical twins separated at birth having similar life outcomes, interests and frequently career choices. Sure opportunities and experiences are factors but I wish to further explain why there seems to be a pretty dramatic change in both parents and their children that are now young adults and the experiences of their own parents as children. It is truly a matter of numbers and for someone who is predisposed to not really liking math (an attribute passed to me from my own mother and present in my own daughter) I will keep it simple. When parents had six to eight children (and often one car) it simply was not possible to attend every activity they participated in and it was not an expectation. The workload at home was different as well. With families that size it was often obvious who was the “smart one” or the “athletic one” or some other “one”. Parents took their cues from there as to where to invest funds or who to encourage when making decisions; the “strong one” might be left the family farm and the “smart one” might be sent off to college. The “athletic one” might have an opportunity at college because of their skill and the “pretty one” might marry well and be taken care of. There was often “one” destined to remain close and take care of the parents should they become infirm. An observation I made many years ago regarding friends from larger families was that nearly every one of them had a “black sheep” who was either in trouble with the law or less successful than their siblings; perhaps had a more difficult time making a living or retaining relationships. A “black sheep” or even a “town drunk” who succumbed to a reliance on a chemical and was taken care of by family but was not expected to amount to much or ultimately ran off with the carnival as it passed through town. No blame, no finger pointing, that was just accepted as their lot in life.
My theory is that if you take several random samplings of 100 adults, you will find a fairly consistent number who exhibit these same traits and some others. The difference is that today families tend to have perhaps 1-3 children and as a result they only want those who are successful in academics or maybe athletics. They have to put all their money on one horse so to speak. Their kid(s) is going to go to college or will run the business or do whatever it is the parent has determined. The parent is not so bogged down with cooking and laundry they can’t attend activities. You actually see parents staying through practices or rehearsals which nobody had the time for a generation ago. Odds are there are two cars along with a greater likelihood that perhaps both parents work. So economically there is more money to spend on fewer children; camps, coaching, tutoring are all accessible. There is less preventing a parent from talking to a teacher, coach or even a boss at a job. The real point of my theory is that perhaps their child is not part of the percentage who will succeed at college but is maybe the manual laborer or even, despite Sylvan learning center and an ACT tutor they are from the sliver of the pie that is a wanderer; the black sheep or the town drunk. The percentage of kids and the traits they will have remain constant, it just is that they are spread over approximately four times as many sets of parents.
The workload is smaller with few in a household, it is easier for the parents to cook, clean, do yard work and laundry. The kids are encouraged to participate in lots of activities. “Play dates” and big birthday parties are the norm, something that no parent with eight children was able to or wanted to do. Kids don’t have as many chores or responsibilities and thus remain reliant on their parents longer. Increased divorce rates have resulted in parents who want their children to “like them”, who are not always with them and as a result need to make their time together special. This is where the phrase “Disney Dad”came from.
When the term “helicopter parent” was coined I looked at many articles describing the phenomenon and was struck by a brief story that I have repeated many times. A college installed laundry machines which students could watch via computer to tell when a load was done. A college-aged daughter called her mother in another state to have her watch her laundry and then text her at the library when her load was done. This story was an epiphany to me that the student housing complex adjacent to a Big Ten campus that I worked for was not the only place where students were not growing independent as the result of being at college. Parents were not letting go and were inserting themselves in their child’s lives into adulthood. One day my coworker had taken a call from an irate mother from out of state. Her daughter was in one of our buildings (located a block from our office) and was stressed because our change machine in the lobby was out of quarters and her daughter had wet clothing in a washer and no coins to operate the dryer. I was glad to just overhear the call because my response would not have been as customer service oriented. It might have gone something like this:
“It is a shame that by age 18 your daughter thought the best solution to not having quarters in Minnesota would be to call you in South Dakota. It is unfortunate that she did not think through having enough change to complete the task prior to starting the washing machine. I am sorry that she does not have a relationship with her roommate or neighbors that would allow her to ask them if they have any change. It is too bad that her skill set did not include problem solving to the extent that there is a store a half block from her location and at least three banks within a half mile of her apartment that are all equipped to exchange her money for her but those options did not occur to her. There is also a person sitting at a reception desk feet away from where the change machine is located who could notify our maintenance man who fills the machine when he is made aware of that need. She could have walked over to our office or made this phone call herself regarding the parking pass.” Slight pause while I listen to the mother. “I assumed that you were calling to obtain a parking pass for when you get here with her quarters.”
So there are many factors that have contributed to adults seeming less sufficient than they have been in the past. Some of them are in fact real and brought on by parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives. Don’t be their alarm clock at college by giving a daily wake-up call. Give them chores, allow them to make mistakes, that is how they learn. Another factor is that now young adults are being manipulated into being places outside of where they would have naturally landed a generation or two ago because of the concept that children are to fulfill their parents wishes and not simply their own. The best thing a parent can do is to give their children (of any age) the space to find what they enjoy, what they are good at, what they want to do and who they want to be. Don’t live vicariously through your children, they can’t fulfill your dreams for you and if permitted to be, their dreams for themselves are likely different than yours.