Moving Up and Moving On in 2017

Every year in my practice I tend to have at least a couple of twelfth graders getting ready to move on to college.  Some of our local districts are fairly small, stable, and homogeneous, and many kids have known each other 12 or 13 years by the time they graduate; for good and bad and everything in between, their classmates often feel like family.  Some kids choose to go to small colleges as well, feeling more secure and comfortable in a place where classes are small and they will be familiar with their professors.  Some choose large state schools and big Ivies, thrilled to be around tens of thousands of strangers and blending into the crowd as they reinvent themselves as adults.  To each his own. What is consistent, though, is that graduating from high school and deciding what is next is anxiety provoking, whether a little or a lot. In affluent suburbs like ours where many parents already have college and professional degrees, or where parents have left their country of origin in order to give their children more opportunity, there is a lot of pressure to make this transition in a certain way.  If my parents have Ivy League PhDs, how could I tell them I want to play guitar in a coffee house?  Or take a year off?  Or work as a plumber, mechanic, or other skilled tradesman rather than become a doctor or lawyer or economist?  There was recently a letter in the New York Times, in the “Social Q’s” column, from someone who had gotten into Harvard and wanted to take a year off to work for a nonprofit that aids the poor.  The parents refused to pay tuition if the student didn’t start college immediately in the coming semester, although Harvard had no problem deferring admission.  One might even argue that Harvard would be glad to admit a student who thinks of others before oneself, may pursue a career in the nonprofit world, or make a fortune and become a philanthropist.  But the parents were firm—gap year means no tuition for an Ivy League education.

Forcing young adults into certain pigeon holes does no good.  I was the first in my family to go to college, except for a cousin of my mom’s who is a mathematician, so the pressure was not as great as for kids I’ve seen in my office who literally have two- and three-generation legacies at places like Yale or Cornell.  Everyone has to find his own path, and often we, as the older generation, or the “adults” in their lives, don’t get out of the way so they can find those paths.

Students that I see often put pressure on themselves as well, pressure of their own making.  One student a couple of years ago considered perhaps initially attending WCC, but pushed that idea aside because he would be “embarrassed” to announce to his class he was going there, lest they think he couldn’t go anywhere else due to either grades or finances.  Meanwhile, this young man would have done well at WCC—school was not easy for him, he had some minor but not insignificant learning issues that challenged him throughout his school career, and getting his feet wet at a community college would have been a good move.  Also, he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to study, so taking some requirements and classes from different departments may have helped him to figure that out.  He instead chose a small school not far from home so he could visit on weekends if he wanted to, and then found out that a few of his classmates were actually going to start their college careers at WCC.  It’s a shame that in some districts, among some kids, the idea of community college is tossed aside as not an option.  It’s also a shame that many of those same kids struggle to succeed once away at school, come home, and spend a year at WCC anyway.  I’ve seen more than my share of those.

Often the biggest challenge is the challenge of backing off.  In “the old days” college freshman literally got dropped off at their dorms, possibly on a street corner, if the school was more urban, said goodbye to their parents and were on their own.  I stayed home and went to school in Brooklyn, but even I broke free and started to run my own life more and more.  I hopped on the subway, went to school, and didn’t talk to my parents until we were all home at the end of the day—no cell phones, no e-mail, no tweets or posts highlighting my day.  They had to assume I hadn’t hit any major snags my first day of school, and that I would report back to them over dinner.  Even living at home I had to navigate whatever happened day-to-day pretty much on my own.  Had I been dropped on a campus somewhere and left to my own devices, it would have been even more true.  But today kids can start texting and calling their parents the minute the car has left the campus, about issues big and small (usually small).  Parents get involved in things they probably shouldn’t.  It’s too easy today to respond so quickly that your child doesn’t have the opportunity to solve his problems on his own.  If you trust your young adult child enough to send him to a school to live on his own with very little supervision, then you need to trust him enough to let him make some mistakes without the safety net being quite so available.  Parents getting involved in little skirmishes with a roommate is a no-no.  Parents calling professors—also a no-no.  Same with bailing her out when she runs out of her monthly allowance in the first couple of weeks.  How will she budget for rent and other expenses in the future if she thinks that ATMs print unlimited funds?

Here are some things I think that our newly-minted adults should achieve—hurry up, summer is short:

• Change a tire.  I mean this. I don’t think anyone should drive a car who has never, at least once, changed a tire. I’d suggest starting a stalled car by putting a tire gauge (or pencil) into the choke, but I think those days are long gone….

• Get somewhere without a GPS.  Buy your kid some maps.  When I moved to Westchester I bought a big Hagstram atlas of the county.  Best thing I ever did.

• Balance a checkbook.  For obvious reasons.

• Give your child a credit card, and allow him to have access online to watch the activity and keep within a limit.  Sure, it’s your money paying the bill, but let him start to take some responsibility for not overdoing it and making sure bills are paid.

• Live without the cell phone for 24 hours at a time.  No texting or posting on social media.  Also, keeps them from bothering Mom and Dad for every little thing.  You’d be amazed what your kid can accomplish when he has to do it on his own.

• Ride public transportation alone.  Not every place has subway maps that look like spaghetti, but most places will have a bus or light rail system.  If your child is going to a school in a city, there will be more and better public transportation.  Do you want your kid learning to navigate public transit on the “L” on the south side of Chicago?  Probably not.  Teach her how public transit works before she goes.

• BE ALERT TO SURROUNDINGS.  Too many of us today, not just young adults, are distracted.  Teach your kids to always be alert and, if lost, to at least LOOK like they know where they’re going, so as not to appear vulnerable.  Teach them to walk around the block until they get oriented.  To walk with intention and confidence.

• Talk about drinking and sex.  Teach both your boys and your girls how to protect themselves at parties, on dates, on campus, etc.  Talk to them about the risk they are taking when they drink too much and can no longer really protect themselves from anything from robbery to rape to assault to simply getting taken advantage of by other kids looking for someone to pay the bill at the diner.  Don’t be naïve.  Thinking “not my kid” is dangerous.  Yes, even YOUR kid….

• Maybe most important—TIME MANAGEMENT.  Most of the kids I see who struggle and fail at their first attempts at college do so because they simply are not organized enough and lack time management.  Whatever your child does this summer – job, volunteer, class, whatever, HE, not YOU, should learn to manage his time.  I’ve taught as an adjunct for many years. Believe me when I tell you that no professor steps in if your kid didn’t leave enough time to finish his paper or study for his test or if he overslept and missed class.  No one will remind him, give him a wakeup call, or write things down on his calendar for him.  He may have to make some mistakes in order to learn, but you can minimize those mistakes by helping him get started at home.  Too many kids are lacking those executive functions needed to navigate life outside the nest, let’s help them get there.

And if your child is going to work after high school, so much the better.  Life will help him learn quicker than he would have at college anyway.  Whether he works for a year or two to find himself before college, or chooses a trade or some other path where college is not needed (admittedly fewer and fewer options, unfortunately), having to punch the proverbial clock will be the sink or swim moment that other kids may not have for at least four years, if not more.

Most of us get through this time unscathed.  A little preparation goes a long way.  What a summer this could be!

Onwards and upwards, young graduates!

Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D. practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.

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About the Author: Barbara Kapetanakes Psy.D.