I am beginning to understand that the first eighteen years of parenting are the easiest.
Those first eighteen years amount to parental spadework. Parents provide the soil, the sunlight, and the seeds that help a child grow and mature. When it comes to our children, most of us are reasonably myopic. How could we not be? We had to be there for our children 24/7 for eighteen long years. When they were infants bawling at 2 AM, we had to sort through their issue of the moment. When they took their first tentative steps, we had to be there to make sure they did not hurt themselves. We had to sort through innumerable child rearing issues from their schooling, their religious education (or lack thereof) and their friendships. Then at some point, we have to cut the cord and try not to grimace as our darling children struggle to navigate the complexities of real life.
There are times when I think that my daughter, who graduates high school and turns eighteen this year, should have engaged life more. Like her parents, she has turned quite introverted. She is fine with her small coterie of oddball friends. She seems fine that most of them have already started executing their career plans while she has yet to engage. While naturally intelligent, she often lacks motivation. What she really wants to do is write fiction (and she is a gifted writer) and watch CSI: Miami reruns. Unfortunately, writing fiction, while a laudable goal, is unlikely to provide the income she will need to survive. Moreover, there are only so many episodes of CSI: Miami. When she thinks about her looming adulthood at all, she is trying to figure out whether she wants to go to a community college or spend a year in the real world and then maybe go to college. Rather than decide, she seems content to just see what life serves up on her doorstep. Her attitude is understandable. The real world can be a bizarre, cold and brutal place.
While concerned, I realize that any teenager moving into adulthood will go through stages like this. She is like a chrysalis. She may prefer to stay in her shell, but it is opening anyhow. Life is propelling her toward maturity, whether she is ready or not.
Her “go real slow” approach is not necessarily a bad strategy. Her innate sense of caution, perhaps learned by observing some dysfunctional friends, has had some positive effects. She does not smoke and is not taking drugs. She has not run off with a biker named Thor. I do not worry that she has caught a sexually transmitted disease or that she will have a child out of wedlock.
In addition, she does appear unlikely to emulate her somewhat older cousin. Over the last week or so, I have become privy to an example of a disastrously bad choice that a young adult can make. My niece is a skinny, intelligent, well-mannered and attractive girl. Excellent parents raised her in a warm and nurturing environment. Her parents, as best I can tell, have done everything right. Doctor Spock would use them as examples. My niece has excelled scholastically, grabbed a scholarship, managed a part time while attending university, and learned the art of sharing an apartment with a friend. Her parents have followed the usual best practices: giving educational carrots and additional freedoms commensurate with grades and demonstrating sound values.
So just why has their 20-year-old daughter run away with a very handsome but very troubled young man? It is not as if she did not have any warning about his dysfunctional nature. Nor is there a lack of earnest young men with sound values who would like to be romantically involved with her. Instead, she chooses to focus on her bad boy boyfriend. He smokes, has gotten in trouble with the law, totaled some cars and continually relies on others to bail him out. Now my niece has stopped going to classes. She has moved to Atlanta to be with her boyfriend and his dysfunctional mother .
Her parents, of course, are tearing their hair out. They spend much of their time crying, worrying and not getting much sleep. They are also taking painful steps: repossessing her car, cutting off her cell phone and cleaning up the detritus she left behind. These included two beloved cats that she abandoned. I think I can confidently say that my daughter will never do anything quite this rash. Caution seems to be hardwired into her brain.
As she turns eighteen, my wife and I are negotiating a set of transition rules for our daughter. Just agreeing on a set of rules is a big challenge for us. Both of us come from different backgrounds. Consequently, we have sometimes-divergent ideas of what strings and carrots are appropriate for a young adult. It seems unlikely that on the day she turns 18 that our daughter will move into an apartment of her own. Having spurned a part time job, she does not have the money for such an endeavor, and we will not give it to her. With the high cost of living in Northern Virginia, she would need plenty of roommates to make ends meet. Given her tendency toward inertia, we will likely have to prod her to find a job. Nonetheless, the outlines of what we are prepared to do are now clear.
We have a pile of money set aside for her college education. We will spend it on her educational expenses only. If she goes to school full time and needs a car we may provide a car but we will not give her the title. If she wants to wait a while before going to college, then she can stay with us but will have to pay us rent. Right now, my wife and I are negotiating these details. I am thinking $200 a month or 25 percent of her gross income for rent, whichever is less, with amounts going up every year. If she chooses not to go to school, we will expect her to work at least 32 hours a week. She will be responsible for getting to and from work. Our bus service around here is problematical, so it will be a logistical challenge for her. It will be one of many challenges she will have to manage, but they will help prepare her for much bigger challenges ahead.
Our daughter has the outline of our thinking, but we have not presented the details. We plan to implement it as a contract where we all sign on the dotted line. If she does not like it, she is free to move out. I cannot see her doing that, since inertia may just as well be her middle name. In addition, the true cost of living would be a real shock. I doubt she has the right set of skills to manage the complexity of jobs, roommates and living within her means at this stage of her life.
The reality is we all found this time of life challenging. College, as hard as it was, provided me with something of a buffer. Student (and later off campus) housing was straightforward and not too complex. It was not until I graduated and found myself in the midst of a bad job market that I was forced to fully engage adult life with all its uncertainty and stresses. I struggled. My wife went through similar struggles.
Our daughter knows that advanced education and a professional work attitude will make these challenges less stressful. However, knowing is not the same motivator that feeling them provides. We suspect that when she experiences these things first hand she might find additional motivation to do hard things, like make the commitment to strive hard in college. A year between high school and college working a low wage job might provide a needed dose of reality. Her lack of a plan may be the career perfect medicine.
Still, it is no wonder that she prefers to stay in denial. She has absorbed at least this much correctly: real life can be damned scary. It was scary for me and it will be scary for her. Given that society is far more complex for her than it was for me at her age, it could well be scarier for her. Yet like all of us, by confronting real life she will gain self-assurance. It remains to be seen how well she will do and whether our strategies will help or hinder her in this process. The only thing we can say for sure is that there is turbulence ahead. I hope that for a girl who likes roller coasters she will find a way to enjoy the topsy-turvy years ahead.