The transition

The Thinker by Rodin

Some adolescents are eager to sample adult life long before they are physically and emotionally ready to do so. Others prefer to have little to do with growing up and might not grow up at all without firm parental involvement. My daughter is likely in the latter category. After she graduated in June, my wife and I set the firm expectation that she had to get a job.

Our daughter Rosie is part of an emerging trend: the gap year. A gap year is a year “off” (at least from education) between the end of high school and the start of college. My wife and I supported her decision. For a young woman for whom most life changes are a challenge, a year dealing with a regular job should help her clarify her choices. It was our hope that if nothing else this job would show her what life might be like if she did not go to college.

Rosie had managed to graduate high school without working a real job. The summary of her job experience was occasional babysitting and volunteer work. Both my wife and I held part time jobs in high school. Both of us needed the money. As one of eight children in a middle class household, I knew that if I wanted a college education, I would have to pay for most of it myself. I started working as soon as I was legally allowed. My parents chipped in a few thousand bucks toward my college education. I had saved about $7000 from working part time. Student loans and a cheap public university filled the rest of the gap.

Frankly, it irked me that Rosie had managed to get through high school without having had a real job. As I remarked in another entry an entry-level job, aside from providing a source of money was an invaluable education in life. High school has its stresses but it is surreal. Mopping floors at 10 PM or listening to surly customers bitch about their woes while maintaining a pleasant smile was real. Perhaps sensing that real life was not much fun, she seemed content to be a slacker.

There is no lack of entry-level jobs in our area of Northern Virginia. Yet many of them were simply unacceptable to our daughter. With threats of pain and suffering, we could have forced her to apply at a McDonalds or a Target. That tack seemed counterproductive. Since she would have to navigate her own way through real life, we felt it better to work with her than against her. My wife and I became her coaches. Still there was a big gap between our expectations and hers. Ours were that as soon as graduation was over she would be pounding the pavement. Hers was that a couple of times a week, and only if we nagged her and drove her around, she would apply at places where she wanted to work. After applying at a few places, she preferred to wait to see if they would call her. They did not.

To make a long story short she mostly managed to slack off all summer, sleeping in past noon and staying up nearly until dawn. She applied with lackluster enthusiasm at places like the local drug store, but really wanted to work in a bookstore. An interview with a Barnes & Noble though never resulted in a call back. She was this close to being forced to apply for a job at Target when, after a second interview the local Books-a-Million finally offered her a job. If she was relieved, it was hard to tell. My wife and I felt like popping the champagne. It had been an aggravating summer.

We are still nervous. For a young woman who spent most of her summer in a comfy chair with her laptop computer, a real job was going to be a big change. Could our daughter go from slacker to productive retail drone overnight? The answer appears to be yes. She has only finished four days on the job but we are amazed by the transition. While we wait to pick her up in the parking lot after her shift, we can watch her through the large open windows, scurrying from place to place. Her legs hurt, she says. This is not surprising, since they were little used all summer. Already she navigates around the store as if it were a second home, working with intensity and energy that astounds us. She often finds the working at the store interesting. She likes her coworkers, finds many of her chores boring but is too busy running from one task to another to care too much.

I guess underneath that slacker young woman was a woman ready to engage life, but scared by the transition. Now much of that fear is behind her. She has learned to apply for jobs and to interview. She did not like it, but she has acquired a life skill all of us but Paris Hilton must learn. Our job was to encourage first then coax and cajole when necessary. While the process took longer than we expected it is gratifying to see the fruit of her efforts at last. From navigating the buses, (they run only during rush hours) to vacuuming the store after it closes, she has moved from inertia into full engagement. She is learning to leave work at 12:15 in the morning and be back at 10 the same morning for another eight-hour shift. Moreover, she is doing so with both grace and a pragmatic attitude.

While I am still wondering if the other shoe will drop, I am beginning to relax. I know there is much more to this parenting business but I am also seeing that it does eventually end. Flush with her own money (she still must pay us $200 a month in rent, since she is not going to school) she is beginning to make her own choices in the real world. At the end of the month, she turns eighteen. Our joint account will become her own private account. Her checks have arrived. Her check card is already in use.

She still has some catching up to do with her peers. She has expressed little interest in getting her driver’s license. The State of Virginia requires anyone under 19 to go to a driving school, even though my wife and I have taught her how to drive. She will decide if she wants to accelerate the process or wait until she is 19 to take her driving test. The hassle of taking the bus to work (when it runs) or depending on her parents to drop her off and pick her up (when they are not running) may force her to rethink her lackadaisical attitude.

Over the next year, her hazy plans for becoming an English teacher may well change. She understands that public school teachers do not make much money. Working for modest wages may put this choice into context for her. I would not be surprised if her career plans take a new and unexpected path over the next year. For now, she keeps her goal modest: she wants to save up enough money to buy a Vespa. Unlike my wife and me, she will probably not have to worry about how she will afford college. We can give that one gift. She can graduate college and likely start debt free.

This coaching business is challenging for me. I certainly know what I would do if I were in her shoes. Yet I will never be in her shoes. She has treaded a different path in life than mine. My job is to express confidence, provide unconditional love, give an unvarnished picture of the road ahead and, if she asks, help her think through some tough choices. I am sure that she will have some stumbles along life’s path. Perhaps her cautious attitude is now something of an asset. Modern life is incredibly complicated, so caution is warranted, provided it does not amount to dysfunction. Yet life cannot be avoided forever. At some point, it must be engaged. It is heartening to see her engage it at last with a surprising spirit of determination and vigor.

The Graduate

The Thinker by Rodin

Time sneaks up on you when you are a parent. One day you are changing your daughter’s diaper and the next she is on a stage being handed a diploma. You stand there applauding, tears streaming down your face and hoarsely shouting her name to ten thousand attendees. The principle shakes her hand with his right hand while giving her her diploma with his left hand.

It is strange and surreal. You would feel like singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof except you are too choked up to sing. Also, there is the constant drone of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” from the school orchestra. Still, you would sing it if you could, for you are filled with a powerful and bittersweet feeling. Your heart just aches for the love you feel for your child, now a woman.

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he get to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday
When they were small?

Your heart also aches in sorrow, for the bridges of dependency you know you must slowly burn as your daughter to transitions into an adult. You want her to stay at home forever, playing video games, attending sleepovers and going to Girl Scout meetings. Instead, you realize that part of the parenting experience is behind you. You now express your love by letting her go. Now comes a time when love will look a little sterner and at times a little heartless. Every bird reaches an age when the parent unceremoniously kicks the hatchling out of the nest. So too do you realize that it is your solemn parental duty to do the same, perhaps not by suddenly changing the locks, but by sending your daughter out to get a real job, and to learn to do things like paying rent. Since she has elected to take a year off before going to college, she has to get a job to stay at home. After she turns eighteen, our daughter will start paying us rent, $200 a month to start.

When not overcome by emotion you sit there in the George Mason University Patriot Center, one of ten thousand attendees and are a bit mesmerized by the size of the crowd and the enormous Class of 2007. For our daughter Rosie is a graduate of Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia. To say she is one of many is to put it mildly. There are over seven hundred students in her graduating class. It will take a full hour for all the graduates to get their diplomas. Principle Tim Thomas’ arms will be sore for a week.

The number of graduates may be huge, but I am feeling wistful anyhow. This is the sort of high school graduation that I wanted but I never received. Instead of a huge auditorium, my class graduated at the Daytona Beach Kennel Club. Unlike my graduation, where a thunderstorm took out the lights for ninety minutes, this graduation proceeded like clockwork. And unlike my graduation where a fair number of graduating seniors smoked reefers in the darkness while they waited for the lights to come back on, at this graduation the mere failure of the men to wear black pants or the girls to wear a black dress and heels was sufficient grounds to be thrown out of the ceremony.

Yes, it may be corny, but an orchestra has to play “Pomp and Circumstance”. Of course, there has to be brief speeches by the principle, the class historian, the class president and the class valedictorian, none of which really inspires anyone, particularly the graduates. They are more focused on the all night party at the school that will follow graduation. Still, these things are necessary. It is how the reality of graduation sinks in. Anything less and the ceremony is stripped of its meaning and dignity. Still, these graduates are not without a sense of humor. Despite stern admonitions and a pat down of students before graduation, two inflatable beach balls were tossed among the graduates while diplomas were handed out. In addition, despite stern warnings not to do so, a few yahoos in the audience used their air horns anyhow. No graduation is complete without it turning into something of a popularity contest; you can judge a graduate’s popularity by the volume of cheers he or she gets when their name is announced.

Nonetheless, my daughter’s graduation was still deeply satisfying for this parent. I found myself crying at strange times, like when the orchestra struck up a tune from West Side Story but the graduates had not yet filed in. Perhaps it was the jet lag (I had arrived home from Denver, at 1 AM, and was up at 6:30 AM). Perhaps it was the wedding I attended the day before. (I was crying through that too.) On the other hand, perhaps through my daughter’s graduation I was vicariously experiencing the graduation I wanted, but was denied.

It was likely all these things, but mostly I was feeling obnoxious pride at my daughter’s accomplishment. She may not have been class valedictorian, but that was an unattainable goal among 700 plus students anyhow. For now, her proud father was simply awed that she had survived high school and eked out a better than B average. That is no small accomplishment in the 21st century and in a high school ranked 128th in the country. Despite her inexperience, my daughter adroitly dodged all the teenage minefields in front of her. She could have become drug addicted, hooked on tobacco, pregnant, in a car wrapped around a telephone poll or acquired some social disease. She rebelled by truly being different, even among her peers. Not many freshmen would join the Gay-Straight Alliance, or go on to be its vice president. While mostly she navigated below the radar of the preppy and popular, when she stood up, she did so for things she believed in: like civil rights for those whose lifestyle offended the majority of Virginians. How could I not feel pride in a young woman whose values are that well grounded?

As one of the speakers said, graduation is really the end of the beginning, as in the end of childhood. Now our daughter begins a strange and much different chapter of her life, where she navigates regularly to a job, does things she does not want to do for eight hours at a time, smiles when she does not want to, pays rent and learns to live within her means. Perhaps she will learn some other lessons, like what it feels like to be fired, laid off or to make a catastrophically bad choice that eluded her in high school. She will have that right in September when she turns 18. She tells me that one of the first things she plans do when she turns 18 will be to register to vote.

That is how we all learn, of course: by making choices and observing their results in the often nebulous minefield called reality. She is bound to stumble and she will have to learn how to recover by herself. Perhaps this year off from education will be the best education she will ever get. For the one course they cannot teach you in high school is how to navigate real life. Some things cannot be taught; they can only be experienced.

I expressed my confidence that she will make these choices wisely. I too must learn some new skills. I must learn to keep my lips buttoned and to give advice only when asked, and maybe not even then. Our daughter remains leery and cautious about engaging life, but she is not dysfunctional. She remains a nerdy, eclectic but sweet young woman, much like her parents. Her sense of caution will serve her well. She will sort it out in her own way. Her choices may surprise us and occasionally disagree with us. However, those choices will be authentically her own.

We have released the tether and she is unmoored. She is trying out the oars of her life tentatively. Ever so slowly, she will recede from our view.

Real Life 101, Lesson 5: Relationship Basics, Part 3

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the fifth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

In my last entry in this subject, I discussed my thoughts on how to create a solid foundation for a committed relationship. I may have put the cart before the horse because there is also this murky area business of sifting through the dating pool for a lifelong mate.

Let me assure you that anyone you hope to hang around with for the rest of your life will have some problems and issues. While dating, couples finding ways to accentuate their positives and minimize their negatives. Consequently, when you are sizing up someone be mindful that what you see is not necessarily what you would get if you lived with them for the rest of your life.

This is of course because when you date someone he or she is not presenting their true self. Because they are likely interested in you or they would not be going out with you, at least some part of them is projecting an image of themselves that they think you want to see. The nice thing about a date though is that it tends to last only a few hours. You can go home, kick the cat and indulge in some habit like picking your toes you would not want to show your date.

Recognizing this I figured one-way around the problem would be living together. Shacking up was actually my wife’s idea. I was somewhat reluctant because I had never done it before. For me it was a further education in real life. Eventually though it wore on my wife. Like many a woman who have tried this arrangement, eventually they feel used. I got all of the privileges, like virtually all the sex I wanted, with none of the responsibilities. Moreover, she was responsible for half the rent, even though I made more money than she did.

Since I loved her and living together was certainly not a bad thing, I eventually agreed to tie the knot. I had a good idea what I was getting into at that point, or so I thought. Yes, the stockings on the shower rail and the collection of medications splayed over the bathroom counters took some getting used to, but these were minor annoyances. I rationalized that if the problems got too bad we could always divorce.

I do not know how typical my case was, but I found that there was a huge difference between living together and actual marriage. Part of it was psychological. For the first time in my life, my assets were legally tied with someone else’s. When we lived together, our biggest joint problem was making sure we both paid our share of the rent on time. Now there was all this other stuff to work through. It ran from the relatively trivial, like deciding how our apartment would look to the very personal, such as how to accommodate differences in our sex drives. I was not in Kansas anymore. Moreover, since we were married, we did not have to wear our masks anymore. I found the first five years of my marriage were constantly full of surprises.

How much of what I experienced would happen to you is of course impossible to predict. What is true is that both my wife and I are different people. There was no way to really know how things would work out until we worked through issues as a married couple. I am confident though that stuff will happen in any such relationship that will surprise, upset you or be of concern. When this stuff happens, you learn where the friction points in your relationship really lie. How you navigate through them will tell you volumes about yourself and your spouse.

Most of us though want to minimize that stuff. We want to feel harmony with our partner ten or twenty years into a relationship, not strife. Given that most marriages eventually devolve into divorce (and arguably many that remain are not that happy) finding that harmony without surrendering your self-identity and self-respect can be one of life’s thorniest problems.

As I mentioned in the first entry in this series, the best thing you can do before getting hip deep in the dating pool is to work on addressing your own issues. Granted, this is not an easy thing to do. We all come with baggage, but young adults do not tend to come with much money. Therapists are not cheap. Anything you can do to address what you feel are your biggest relationship problems before you get too far into intimate relationships will be time and money well spent. If you do not, you will be tackling them later. Moreover, if you are in a lifelong relationship, they will affect your spouse too.

Although hardly anyone bothers, simply writing down what you are looking for in a partner will make you more mindful of people who may meet your needs. It will also tell you a lot about yourself. Virtually all of us on some level will crave a partner who is attractive. However, your ideal partner is probably someone on roughly the same attractiveness scale as you. If you examine the standard deviation for the human population, after all, you will find relatively few 1s and 10s. Most of us are in the middle and that is perfectly okay. If you are one of these types for whom looks are paramount, you can save yourself a lot of grief by adjusting your standards. Not only is a perfect 10 likely saddled with their own baggage, if you were married to one of these people your life may be much more stressful than you can imagine. (For one thing, if you were the jealous type, you would be constantly worried about the competition eager to snatch him/her away.)

When your significant other suggests it is time to meet the family, rather than run away from this activity, you should embrace it. You will learn volumes about the person from their family. Let us say that you come from a family where your parents have a happy, comfortable and mutually fulfilling marriage. You discover that both your girlfriend’s parents have been divorced twice and she has known two sets of stepfathers. You find out that her brother is also divorced or had a child out of wedlock. You discover that Aunt Mabel hates Uncle Jeff. One or two incidents like this in a family is excusable, but still a caution flag. A family rife with these issues should be ringing your claxon bells. Know that if you marry this person the odds are your marriage will likely be full of similar issues.

I suspect you came from a family that had issues too. Full disclosure is the best policy. Let your boy or girlfriend shake out your family too. If you have concerns about her reaction to a particularly toxic person in the family, tell her about it in advance. Tell her what you have learned from of it, and how a long term relationship with you would be different.

It should go without saying that if your potential partner is evasive then claxon bells should be going off too. It is fine to be evasive if you are dating casually. It is another thing entirely if you are both seriously contemplating a lifelong relationship.

Indians have a rigid caste system that has endured for millennium. While I certainly do not endorse the system, the best partner for you is likely to be someone who is in a similar socioeconomic class. If your background and outlook is blue collar, you probably carry those values with you. Most likely, you will feel more comfortable with a partner who is also blue collar. Mixed marriages are fine, but the ones that are more likely to endure occur when both are from the same socioeconomic background. I dated two black women during my dating years. One was a pediatrician and the other the daughter of an Air Force general. I am sure a mixed marriage would have been full of challenges, but they would have been less so because both women came from solid middle class households where the parents were in stable marriages, like mine.

Your best guide is likely your gut instinct. If you feel uneasy about your potential partner, trust your instinct. He or she may be attractive and on the surface, everything may seem terrific. Wait for that someone who, when the flush of infatuation fades, still fills you with a warmth and contentment. He or she is likely the right partner for you.

Real Life 101: Lesson 4, Relationship Basics, Part 2

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the fourth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

I am 21 years into my marriage. I do not know if my marriage is typical or atypical, nor would I claim that my wife and I have a model marriage. However, we are still hanging in there. I do know that after all these years that I still sometimes find myself baffled in my own most intimate relationship. I suspect my wife feels the same way. Just who is this weird person I married? is what I am sure she often asks herself. What happened to the man I knew? I often have similar feelings. I view the current state of my marriage and compare it with a time when it seemed to me to be at its most wonderful stage, which was around 1986, and certain aspects of the way it is today are a let down. In 1986, we were childless and had few obligations. Since then lots and lots of life has happened. All these normal things that happen to normal people over 21 years put stress on our marriage. Just as a waterfall will erode the rocks at its base, life will tend to erode even the most solid of relationships.

Since you are likely young, you are probably not a homeowner. However, I think you can understand that if you were a homeowner that basic home maintenance is not just a good idea, it is required. Life sucks when your roof has a hole in it or the air conditioner dies in the middle of summer. Most homeowners quickly learn to anticipate these things. Your house, like your marriage or any partnership arrangement you get into, will also have to fight the forces of entropy. Unfortunately, just saying, “I love you” to your partner every day will not be enough.

My wife and I have learned through painful experience that complacency is not a great marital strategy. In any committed relationship regular spadework must be done. I suspect that marital complacency is likely the number one reason that marriages fail. If you do not place much value in your relationship, then go ahead and be complacent about it. Just do not be surprised if you end up divorced, or unhappy, or upset because your feelings are not being addressed. If you do value your relationship, you and your spouse need to regularly invest your most precious asset: time. This does not necessarily mean if you are a guy that going out with the guys is now out of the question. It does mean that that satisfying your partner’s needs for intimacy comes first. When that cup is full and if there is time left over, then go hang out with the guys.

If you are already in a committed relationship, I hope that your better half feels the same way you do about your relationship. If he or she does not, you should be hearing the deafening sounds of claxon bells. Now is the time to run, not walk and get some joint counseling. No positive relationship can remain in imbalance for very long. No relationship that is worth keeping should be one sided. The premise behind marriage is that the relationship is very valuable. Just as you would make sure a precious heirloom is protected, so should you and your partner work to ensure your relationship stays optimal.

I have written about marriage before. For me one of the key lessons that I have learned is that the participants actually define the scope and meaning of their relationship. A marriage certificate may offer some legal protections, but otherwise it really means nothing. Only you and your partner can judge the value of your relationship. If it feels dead, it is dead. You can both stay together for the sake of the children or to spare hurt feelings, but neither of these things changes the fact that the relationship is dead.

The good news is that unlike actual death, which is final, it is possible to bring a marriage back to life. However, it has to be done before the body cools. In addition, it requires the sincere commitment of both partners. Sadly, there is no guarantee that it will work and unfortunately, the odds are against you.

Since presumably you are starting out on this committed relationship business, you can learn best practices for building and sustaining healthy, long-term relationships. It starts with a solid foundation. Do you and your potential partner share the same vision and goals? What is your idea of a successful long-term intimate relationship? What are your partner’s ideas? Under what circumstances would you break up? It is far better to discuss these things candidly before you tie the knot. Do not assume that you can read your partner’s mind. If during this discovery phase you find that you have different expectations and agendas then it is far better to move on rather than deal with the carnage many years later.

I once posited in an online forum in dead seriousness that parents should be licensed. I also wish that couples planning marriage were required to wait at least six months and attend a rigorous premarital counseling course as well. A marriage should be given the same respect you would give a firearm. For marriages can kill too. When they go wrong they typically kill or wound a person spiritually, but sometimes they can actually kill you. If you examine homicide statistics, the person most likely to murder you is your spouse. Spouse abuse, be it physical, emotional and sexual (or often a combination of the above) is so common that it is likely someone within a few hundred feet of where you live is currently a victim. The NRA will strongly encourage you to take a gun safety course before owning a firearm. I am encouraging those of you contemplating a committed long-term relationship to make a very wise investment and get relationship counseling.

Star struck lovers often have little idea what a long-term relationship is all about. Sometimes they do know, but simply do not care, since their body is awash in love hormones. Trust me, the infatuation phase will end. While love and mutual respect should be the foundation of a committed relationship and sex its spice, on a daily basis relationships like marriage are far more prosaic. What it amounts to, frankly, is they tend to be a whole lot of work. It works much better though when the partners are in a harmonious relationship based on mutual understanding.

Through premarital counseling, you can garner vital insights and perspectives. If you receive good counseling, you will discuss those issues that tend to be given short shrift in the flush of a romantic relationship. What are your expectations about children? Who should do what housework? How will the money be managed? Should you have separate bank accounts? What are your needs for sex? What are your needs for privacy? How clean should the house be? How will chores be allocated? What does fidelity mean to you? Knowing you agree on similar values and have common expectations means that you can enter a relationship like marriage with a solid foundation. You may learn a lot about your partner from these sessions. Indeed, you may very well discover that the person who you thought would be your ideal lifelong partner has very different needs and expectations than yours.

I believe that more marriages would succeed if there were sets of older, experienced marriage veterans to act as mentors for the young couple. Having a couple ten or twenty years ahead of you in their marriage to discuss marital issues would provide the wisdom and perspective that so many couples lack.

Finding such resources may prove challenging. If you are religious, your place of worship may offer such a service. Any marriage counselor can provide this service and a few sessions are likely all you will need. They would probably be thrilled to have a couple anxious to avoid mistakes for a change. Most marriage counselors learn from experience that by the time a couple makes it to their office, the marriage is usually over and they end up in the role of facilitator. However you get such counseling, it is an excellent investment. While having a facilitator like a marriage counselor is ideal, there are no lack of self help books on premarital counseling too. A counselor is a better choice than a book but if you are financially challenged a book may suffice.

Divorce is likely the most traumatic and costly event that can happen in any life, but living in a bad relationship can be equally damaging as well. Taking proactive steps to ensure your relationship is solid before starting a long-term committed relationship is just common sense.

Ready or not, here life comes

The Thinker by Rodin

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.