I met with a parent the other day who had just dropped her daughter off at university. She said how excited her daughter was, how terrifying it was for her and her husband to leave Abby at university and just how splendidly Abby seemed to get on in her first week on campus. They spoke daily, sent messages hourly, and this dream that Abby had had for years was finally being fulfilled. And just how she had imagined.
Then week two hit and the middle-of-the-night phone calls started coming in. From Abby. To her mother.
“I hate it here.”
“Everyone is drinking.”
“Someone just used the term ‘Oriental’.”
“I think I should come home.”
While the mother of Abby is a rational, independent, highly intelligent woman, she started second-guessing herself and if she had properly raised Abby to succeed as an international student, in this case, in the UK.
“I don’t know if I’ve given her the right skills to succeed in that environment.”
I was shocked to hear this self-doubt. Not because it came from a very confident woman, but instead because I hear it often from parents. In fact all the time. And, I am always trying to reassure the parent that not only have they brought up their child with all the skills and capabilities possible for the child to succeed at university abroad but also that their child, now at the age of 17 or 18, is a young adult. She will know what to do. And, if she doesn’t—as happens with all of us at any stage in life—she will figure it out.
“But what if she starts drinking at 2pm with her housemates as she said they’re doing all the time?”
Then she does.
And she’ll probably hate it; it will make her feel gross and then she’ll stop doing it. But, she’s got to have the opportunity to take those decisions—and face the consequences of those decisions, good or bad—on her own. The urge to FaceTime Abby a quick advising session or intervention is perhaps easiest, but the consequences of that very action will, as all my parents ultimately tell me they know, hurt. And they won’t hurt so much the parent. They will hurt the child. Immensely.
I think what most surprises me about this very consistent and prevalent insecurity of parents—“Have I equipped her with the tools to manage?”—is the very insecurity itself and how isolating it makes my parents feel. Yet almost all of my parents have this feeling when they leave their child at university. I suppose our parents felt the same when we went off to university or to live independently. Imagine that we ever felt or even considered that our parents did not equip us as best as they possibly could for our next stage in life; it would never have occurred to me. And, I doubt that any student of mine has ever had that thought even cross his mind as he started university, far away from his parents and tackling independence, truly, for the first time in his life.
There is no way I can intervene with my families and tell the parents to let their child be. Well, I can, but it’s not my place or my role. But, more and more I see young adults who are unable to take their own decisions, unable to build the confidence to trust their own gut and unable to really and truly live an independent life. What happens when they turn 30? Or 40? Will they revert to an early 20's version of their own self vis à vis taking decisions and managing the consequences of such? This is something we have yet to see from this generation. Instant-everything doesn’t help, but it’s here and it’s what our world is. Helping parents see this may also help to abate this growing sense of self-doubt I see in parents today. A self-doubt that has no rationale, no place and surely no purpose.
Parents, you're doing and have done a fabulous job. Time to enjoy some time for yourselves now.