I start and end each day with my three boys — two in elementary school and one in middle school. Yet, the bulk of my day is spent on a college campus surrounded by other people’s children, working with students during an exciting and transformational time in their lives. What I particularly take note of during my interactions with these college students is how they go about managing their day to day responsibilities — and, more importantly, what makes some of them more successful than others. At the end of the day, it leads me to wonder what I can do now with my kids to best prepare them to be independent, engaged and well-adjusted young adults when they too go off to college.
Like all of us raising children these days, I want most of all to protect and safeguard them from an often scary world that we all know has a lot of sharp edges and painful lessons. Yet increasingly, both my job and a growing body of serious research makes it clear that if we are going to turn children into successful and happy adults, we need to back off and turn the reins over to them. This needs to begin when they are young. It is our responsibility to ensure they have the ability, the know-how and, most of all, the confidence to act independently and take care of themselves.
If you are anything like me, this is a truly frightening thought. We spend the earliest years of their lives protecting them from the sharp edges, hot surfaces and hard falls only to find out that, at some point, we must let them experience these metaphorical edges, surfaces and falls. As a parent, it is exhausting.
Let’s face it, we all want our children to find their own voice, to learn to advocate for themselves, to work through failures, to be able to communicate effectively with others and to know what it means to have responsibilities. Yet, it isn’t easy for us to "let go."
I’ll be the first to admit — my natural tendency is to want to be in control of everything related to my children, from their schoolwork to the sports they play to the friends they spend time with. And, in many ways, at their ages (13, 11 and 6), I do, and have to, orchestrate much of their daily lives. I have an app on my phone that provides me with a daily update on my oldest son’s grades, from his level of participation in kickball that day in gym to his performance on a recent science chapter test. And my calendar is packed down to the minute with sport practices, birthday parties, and haircuts. So, with all these pressures and competing interests, how do you let go and let them be their own individuals?
I see, on a daily basis, far too many parents still managing everything in their college-age child’s life, from the college application process to housing issues to filling out forms for athletics, scholarships and parking passes.
It doesn’t stop there. Every college administrator knows of parents who choose their child’s major and minor, fill out their schedule blocks, monitor their grades online and make calls on things like what classes to drop and what classes to keep. Parents call, with their children in the background, to ask the dimensions of a room and the measurements of the bed so they can design the student’s room décor.
When we take all these tasks, small and large, from our children, we also take away their chance to confront the problems we all face, strategize a solution and find an answer. And we don’t allow them to build the kind of confidence that lets them see problems as challenges to learn from — challenges that they have conquered before and have the confidence they can conquer again. We rob them of coping skills and stop them from developing the resilience that so often is the key not just to success in academics and business, but in life — in marriage, child-rearing and friendship. We should not take from them the joy, as well as the pain, that comes with solving problems.
We can and need to turn this around. Beginning early in our children’s lives, there are some simple things that we can do to support them in developing problem-solving skills and resilience, laying the groundwork for an independent and decisive first-year college student out on their own.
First and foremost and starting early — set high expectations for your children and hold them accountable. Teach them to introduce themselves when they walk into a room, order for themselves at a restaurant, communicate on their own to their teachers and coaches and show empathy toward others. And, perhaps most important, teach them to value effort over avoiding failure so they learn that failure inspires growth.
Let’s be honest, none of this is easy. But we owe it to our kids to let them "figure it out" now so they can best figure it out once they’re in college and seeking to establish their own independence. We will falter at times, we may take two steps forward and one step back, but I’m up for the challenge, are you?