This September, Let the Kids Grow Up

BY LENORE SKENAZY | With our just-out-of-the-nest kids starting up their college life this month, it’s nice — or maybe just weird — to know that at least one university is offering a new class in “adulting.”

The program at East Carolina University will attempt to teach incoming students how to be successful adults. Sadly, this does not involve tips on how to pick stocks or useful friends. It is a class on how to roll with the punches.

Noting an increase of 1,800 counseling appointments over just two school years — which required the hiring of two new counselors — the university wondered if there was some way to make its students more resilient. The vice chancellor for student affairs, Virginia Hardy, conducted a study and came to realize the root of the problem: “Students don’t have an opportunity as much these days to manage failure, they don’t experience it in certain ways as much so they don’t know how to manage it when it happens,” as she told Greenville’s Daily Reflector.


Now, it is anybody’s guess whether young people really can’t handle distress or are simply more accustomed than earlier generations were with turning to mental health professionals. And there’s something to be said for getting help rather than descending into darkness. There’s even something to be said for learning how to turn off the “You are a loser” tape looping in the brain, which is a stated goal of the class. As a college student, I wish I could have turned off mine.

But as Boston College psych professor Peter Gray has noted in his work on resilience: At least some college students seems to be seeking help for problems they could solve themselves. At BC, for instance, one student sought counseling after seeing a mouse in the dorm. Another came in after a spat with a roommate.

So the dark underbelly of being mature enough to seek help is being immature enough to find everyday ups and downs overwhelming. Thus the class at East Carolina U will teach students that setbacks are a normal part of life, as is frustration.

In other words: It hopes to teach young people — at last — how to deal.

Can’t say I didn’t see this coming.

This is exactly the life lesson we have, in our love and worry, failed to give our kids. Instead, for the past generation or two, we have been always at their side, overseeing them, monitoring them, making sure they’re okay… to the point where they aren’t. This isn’t the fault of neurotic parents; the whole culture is complicit. My kids went to a variety of New York City public middle and high schools and all of these had tracking systems that allowed us to check how they did on homework, quizzes, and tests — daily!

That’s a level of scrutiny no one expected of my own parents. It assumes that intense parental oversight is normal, even necessary. How intense? In some other cities, parents can log on and find out exactly which items their kids chose from the lunch line.

But worst of all this excess involvement is the way that adults have taken over play. Today’s children grow up with their elders ever-present to organize the game, settle the scores, and slice the snacks. These youngsters don’t get a chance to improvise a wacky new move, because all the games count. They don’t get a chance to throw the ball a little easier to the youngest kid, because all the kids are the same age. They never get a chance to problem-solve whether the ball was in or out, or even choose the teams (talk about a people skill!) because adults do all that, too.

Then these well-loved, well-behaved kids get to college and something as common as roommate troubles seem seismic because for the first time, there’s no adult intermediary. Off they go to find one.

So now, even as it offers its adulting class, East Carolina intends to reach out to elementary, middle, and high schools and try to restore some childhood resiliency.

With any luck, this will give schools the academic cover they need to simply intervene a little less and trust kids a little more. Then maybe the parents will, too.

Childhood was never meant to be perfect. It has always had its lumps and bumps, physical and emotional. These prepare kids for adulthood. Humanhood. Even rooming-with-a–jerk-at-college-hood.

A little more unsupervised time as kids can make unsupervised young adults a lot happier.

Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids and a contributor at Reason.com.