Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Redefining the Stages of Life

This blog has been percolating for some time now, and after turning the last page of Every Day After, a MG book about two resilient children growing up during the Great Depression, I feel compelled to write. So many connections, questions, and concerns have surfaced. As my husband and I prepare to send Hunter off to college, I can't help think about the drastic ways the world has changed.

Lizzie and Ben grew up in an era when there really were only two stages of human life—childhood and adulthood. They faced extraordinary adversity, and they valiantly played the hands they were dealt. Like the main characters in the book, my great-grandmother was born in 1920, and she often tells us stories about working on the farm to help keep her family stay afloat during the tumultuous 1930's. Her dad died when she was 12, and overnight she transitioned from a child to a grown-up.

The American teenager arrived on the scene a decade later, and my grandmother, who is now 70, experienced sock-hops, rock-n-roll, and The Ed Sullivan show. During the 1950's, American consumerism birthed a new stage of life, and parents and grandparents across the country worried about how their children would adapt to this every changing world. Adolescence became a pervasive part of our culture, and although teenagers have evolved over the years, this stage of life is here to stay.

In January of 2013, I heard a podcast by Daniel Pink in which he referenced a New York Times article titled, What Is It About Twenty Somethings? According to Jeffery Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., a new stage of life known as “emerging adulthood” is slowly forming in the United States. Social and economic changes have ushered in this new phase of development, and after spending three days at my son's college orientation, I feel certain these researchers are onto something.

During our visit to Texas Tech, several university employees addressed a sea of anxious parents on various topics related to college life. One of the speakers bluntly stated, "We need you to back off and let your kid grow up." A few parents were asked to return the course catalogues to their respective students, and the institution continually reminded us, the student is registering for college—NOT you. A business professor regaled stories of helicopter parents calling to ask if he would change a kid's grades, and over and over again, we were repeatedly reminded to cut the apron strings. During a Q & A session, one apprehensive mother raised her hand and asked if the university offered a bicycle safety class for her child. My jaw hit the ground, and my faith in society faltered.

I feel confident our son is ready to enter the world. He can do his own laundry, he knows how to scramble eggs, and he's maintained a bank account since he was 16. However, there are still brief moments when I wonder if he's really ready to become a full-fledged adult? Is he going to be able to solve his own problems? Will he still call us when he gets lost on his way to the grocery store? Can he ask the right questions and advocate for himself? The problems of the planet seem to grow more complex each and every day, yet it seems our kids are less and less equipped. Is an "emerging adult" really just an unprepared teenager?

Upon returning from our trip to Lubbock, we were privileged to visit with my sister-in-law and her husband about their soon to be kindergartner. At the local kinder round-up event held each spring, she asked the teacher if five year olds were expected to wipe themselves after using the restrooms. I could only imagine the look on the teacher's face as she politely explained that personal hygiene was a prerequisite to school enrollment. My father-in-law, who helps provides daycare for our nephews, overheard the conversation and promptly chimed in, "You're gonna have to teach him how to do that at home. Crap is messy!" I got tickled, but later on I decided teaching kids how to wipe their our own butts is a great metaphor for life.

In about a month, we will drop Hunter off @ his dorm room in Lubbock, and I'm sure there will be tears, fears, and whole lot of uncertainty. My grandma, Nora, says we have to give our children roots and wings. This got me to thinking about baby birds and how if a momma bird cracks their shell for them, they don't develop enough wing strength to fly. Brené Brown says children are born hardwired for struggle. (*See video min. 17:38 - 18:31)  I think she's right. I hope I have the strength to let Hunter skip the "emerging adulthood" stage, and soar into the future, confident and prepared for whatever challenges he might face. Perhaps the Harry Potter wand he recently ordered online will come in handy.

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