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After Graduation, Are You Ready for the Real World?

May, 2010
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Life for our children is pretty safe and comfortable both mentally and physically. From their birth, through primary, middle school and high school they are supported and protected. So what happens now that Johnny and Mary are 18 years old and ready to graduate? They are legally adults but are they ready for the real world? Have we provided the opportunities for our children to learn and practice the life skills of survival? Have we allowed them to take chances, make mistakes and, as Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus say “get dirty? Unfortunately, the answer is “probably not”.

after-graduation-sWestern and Asian parents very often, and for very different reasons, deprive their children of the essential life experiences that would prepare them to go off to university with the street smarts and wisdom required to make intelligent decisions in a world of strong peer and commercial pressure to do all the wrong things.

Western parents have been bombarded by the mass media “hysterics of fear” designed to sell newspapers and hold onto T.V. audiences; at least until the next commercial. Parents who rode their bikes to school and held part-time jobs are now chauffeuring their almost adult offspring from one secure venue to another adult (one of each gender please!) supervised activity. There is a general malaise founded on the illusion that today there is a higher risk of danger for their children’s’ safety than before. However, the statistics point towards the opposite at least in the United States. Known for its gun toting teens and a culture of crime a study conducted by the Crimes against Children Research center of the University of New Hampshire shows that violence against children has declined substantially over the past decade. www.unh.edu/ccrc/

Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids” tells parents to “Stop worrying about your children!” She says, “Kids today are just as safe as they were in the ’70s, and what’s really distressing is an alarmist culture that refuses to let them grow up. We drive our kids in the car because we know the chances are very slim that we’re going to have a fatal car accident. But the chances are 40 times slimmer that your kid walking to school, whether or not she’s the only one, is going to be hurt by a stranger.http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2009/05/04/free_range_kids/print.html

In spite of an environment of fear managed by commercial and political interests, high school seniors in the west have learned how to balance their studies, social lives and their part-time jobs as they transition towards adulthood. Expat teens aren’t living in a culture where kids pay for their own cars at 16 and start saving for university. A lot of expat kids have drivers and their parents pay agencies to do all the drudgery of college applications while Johnny’s biggest risk for the day is found safely in his bedroom in the world of Nintendo or social networking on a computer screen.

Asian parents are even more protective than western parents. Rarely do you see a group of Asian teens hanging out at the mall or even walking down the street. They are too busy bouncing between their music, math and Tae Kwon Do classes and perennially practicing for the national university entrance exams. It’s no wonder they are so group-oriented. They rarely have opportunities to make decisions themselves and haven’t built up self-confidence in their own decision-making ability. If there is no adult around, they prefer to let the group make the decisions for them or defer to the influence of the child of the highest ranking business person who is expected to set the tone and guide the group to communal salvation. So how can we expect the followers to feel comfortable and confident when they walk into their college dorms to find their roommate on the bed with her boyfriend, the smell of marijuana floating in the dorm hall and a fraternity welcoming party that is straight out of the movie “Animal House”? Our kids will freak out! They have never seen or experienced anything like this and have no personal frame of reference on how to react. And mom and dad aren’t there for them. 

So whose fault is it if our kids don’t know how to get around town by public transportation and worse, are afraid to ask? Are we going to drive our kids to their freshman university classes? Whose going to cook, wash their clothes, negotiate with their landlords, buy their plane tickets and tell them to turn off their computers because it’s time to go to bed?
after-graduation-2sHave we as parents structured in to our children’s lives the challenges that transition teenagers into adults? You can’t get street smarts from doing homework or cushy summer camps. Children of all ages need to be in real situations where there are age appropriate challenges and reasonable risks; where choices have to be made and where the decision makers reap the fruits or endure the consequences of their decisions. If they haven’t had this training before they go off to college they will not get it magically in orientation week, and  mom and dad won’t be there to help them.

So what can you and your young adult do to prepare for independence? First, take honest stock of their survival skills. Have you been good to your child by being strict about him taking care of his diet, belongings, responsibilities, time and money management, while respecting others and the environment? If you have done this then you are done. They can handle the rest. If not, you have several years of work to cram into a summer. If your child doesn’t learn it before college s/he will learn it but it may be a painful, embarrassing and a costly learning experience for them and for you.

There is still the summer. Don’t send the kid off to more classes! Give her the tuition money and what you spend on her for food, board and spending money and send her off somewhere near or far, just as long as it is away from you. Youth today are so fortunate to have a wonderful, safe and affordable youth hostel network in almost every country. (I don’t know about North Korea but that probably wouldn’t be a “first choice” destination!) Your young adult will share rooms with people from all over the globe. If they are not native speakers they will improve their English, manage their own things and time, screw up some time, fix their mistakes and come back a changed person ready for the rigors and temptations of college life…and it won’t have cost you any more than a couple of tutors.

Many almost-adult children won’t want to go off.  Even if the child is ready, many parents still can’t bring themselves to push the child out of the nest. It is hard for parents to accept that their children don’t depend on them for everything anymore. Mothers and especially mothers of single child families experience many unsettling emotions including a fear of family and peers that are quick to criticize with “How could you…!” The maternal instinct to hold on to and to protect the need to feel needed and the dread of an “empty nest” are all important concerns. It may be a parents’ biggest challenge to face a future where they are no longer needed. But it is also an opportunity to reorganize a new stage in their lives in which, for the first time as an adult, they can focus more on themselves, their partners and their personal growth. They can learn that foreign language they always wanted to learn, take that art course, start their own business, and get that degree or volunteer time at the orphanage.

Change scares people. It forces them out of their comfort zones and into the unknown. The transition from high school to college and from needed parent to empty house dweller can be daunting. We know it is going to happen so the wise thing to do is to prepare our children and ourselves for the future by accepting our anxiety as normal. We can do this by structuring and experiencing small steps of risk that will build our self-confidence, judgment and tolerance of failure.
Just like the astronauts, top business people, surgeons and athletes; preparation, imaging one’s self successfully performing in a new role and experience through practice are proven techniques for avoiding future mistakes. Don’t focus on what you haven’t given your child. Focus on how you can use the time left to prepare him or her and yourself for the next exciting adventure. It is just around the corner.  

By Patrick Donahue
You can contact the author at: Sebalex.x@gmail.com


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