I recently read that colleges have a name for the current generation of incoming students. They call them “teacups.” This is because they are beautiful and fragile and have been kept behind glass doors their whole lives.
This is not a compliment. Apparently college admissions committees are pretty discouraged at the lack of maturity exhibited by the incoming students, and they feel that many are not ready for the rigors of college or the responsibilities that are thrust upon them when they leave home and enter the dorms. I agree, since part of my practice focuses on working with young adults who have gone away to school and come back, not because they weren’t smart enough or lacked the academic skills to do the work, but because they lacked the maturity to make it on their own and therefore had to come back home for a little more growing up before trying again.
So, at the risk of sounding like Dick Van Dyke, what exactly IS wrong with kids today?
What’s wrong is exactly what college administrators are saying when they call them teacups. What’s wrong is that they haven’t had a chance to make a mistake, solve their own problems, skin their knees, or take responsibility before being sent to a completely unsupervised living situation where the professors will hand them a syllabus the first day and expect them to know how to use it, and where there will be dozens and dozens of choices each day regarding how to budget their time, how to handle interpersonal relationships, including dating and sex, how to handle the availability of drugs and alcohol, how much they need to study for a particular test, when to start their papers, and so on. We go from calling kids on their cell phones when it’s five minutes past curfew to inform them that they are late, to sending them to a place where no one cares if they sleep in their own beds or even in their own rooms. We go from spoon-feeding them so they will pass the Regents Exams to expecting them to pick a major, register for classes, choose a term paper topic, and otherwise be responsible.
And what has happened is the schools have had to make adjustments to help the new students prepare for life as an adult. Here is an example of how times have changed. A friend recently told me about visiting his daughter for Parents’ Weekend at her school. She just started college this semester and was still getting settled. My friend’s exact words? “We met her professors; it was like Meet-the-Teacher Night in middle school. When I was her age, my mother dropped me off in front of NYU and gave me enough time to get my bag out of the car before she drove away.” I was shocked that the professors would think that meeting parents was necessary. Aren’t these adults, after all, legally speaking?
My parents were much less involved, even though I lived at home through my second year of graduate school. That’s a long time, but still, my parents didn’t meet any of my professors. On the first day of college, at 17 years old, no one had to wake me, tell me what time to leave, or give me a map. I got up, got ready, walked the two blocks to the subway and went downtown to school. No one had to tell me how to find a classroom or to leave myself plenty of time for commuting. This is not to say that my parents didn’t care about my education. Of course they did, and they paid for most of it and kept a roof over my head until I was 23, but it does indicate the level of maturity they felt I had, and the level of trust they had in me to not waste their money. When I decided to change majors and ultimately transfer to another school, I did that on my own as well. I sorted through what I was enjoying and what I was not, what majors seemed better suited to my strengths than electrical engineering, which was what I studied my freshman year. I spoke to faculty in various departments, I talked to other students, I lamented to my friends over pizza that I thought my dad would be disappointed (he so wanted me to be an engineer!!). I never once asked my parents to make the decision for me.
I was close with my parents – quite close with them – and yes, I went to them for guidance and support once I had already hashed out some of these decisions and looked at my options, but I didn’t call them on the cell phone between every meeting or to answer every question. We didn’t have cell phones, that wouldn’t have been possible. I was forced to do as much legwork as I could on my own, and then go to my parents only when I needed to – for the final, bigger decisions: to discuss the possibility of transferring; to talk about the financial aspects of my education; to confess to my father that I wasn’t warming up to the idea of engineering. They were involved about as much as the parents of an adult should be. They let me sort through things on my own, listen to my own voice, and then come to them with some ideas and plans. I was allowed to look at the time I had put in already, see what I could gain from what I had learned, look at what type of education I would need in order to do what I was starting to think I wanted to do (which was be a therapist), and to get this information on my own. No one spoon-fed me; I did it myself, and it was a great learning experience. Ultimately, transferring from a private engineering/science college to a CUNY helped save money for graduate school, and I ended up with less student loan debt than many students because the CUNY system was so inexpensive. Oh yeah, and I paid off my student loans myself. Early. I felt that my parents had done their part by using what cash they had to pay for school, and once I left home it was up to me to make it work financially through a part-time assistantship, loans, etc.
One of the problems, as I see it, is that parents feel clueless and powerless, so they take control where they can. A friend, with a 20-year old daughter who is attending college on Long Island, is having a very hard time. We are all upset about the choices this young woman is making by continuing to date a very unsuitable guy. My friend and her husband found out that she had been driving back and forth to see Prince Charming, therefore going over the miles allowed on her car lease. My friend took away the car, because as she saw it, “Now we are going to have to buy out the lease when it’s up because she’s driven it too much.” Without missing a beat I said, “Why do YOU have to buy it? Why can’t she somehow find the means to buy out her lease? Let her suffer the consequences of her irresponsible, impulsive behavior.” But how do you put control on a 20-year old who is generally a good kid, but who is making some seriously bad choices? How do you control a young adult? The truth is, you really can’t, whether you own the car or not. She can choose to make another stupid decision and drop out of school and live on her own, and therefore by her own rules, but of course we hope that won’t happen. And my friend will continue to pay for college so that is less likely to happen. But they have no more control over this young woman than my parents had over me and the car they couldn’t take away (because I bought my own car at 18 and paid for all maintenance, gas, insurance, and repairs myself). In fact, my friend has less control over her kids since they live out of the house. I lived in your average Brooklyn apartment with thin walls and house rules; my parents could insist I sleep in my own bed. None of my friends can do that with their children who are out of sight.
So, if parents feel powerless and out of the loop, causing them to want to “over-parent” these young adults, what can be done to change this and turn our kids into sturdy coffee mugs rather than delicate teacups? More on that in the next issue…
Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.