Adulting is hard, even for actual adults.
That was what I was thinking when a friend told me recently about her son, a freshman at the University of Michigan, who missed a deadline to sign up for a placement exam and was shut out of a course he needed to take for his major. It wasn’t the end of the world but the friend, who is paying north of $80,000 a year for her son to attend the school, was pretty annoyed. And she wondered whether she should have intervened and if she should be managing more of these kind of things for her child.
As someone who is partial to free-range parenting, my first instinct was to say no. We are all helicoptering too much, never allowing our kids to fail or learn to be independent. It’s time to pop all the bubble wrap and let them go!
On the other hand, it’s not my 80 grand.
Maybe a quarter of college graduates wouldn’t take more than four years to finish their bachelor’s degrees if their parents were more involved, if we kept track of which classes they needed and whether they had fulfilled their distribution requirements. Colleges have every incentive to let students enroll indefinitely. But parents don’t want to keep paying these bills forever.
Another friend recently found out that her daughter, who had planned to graduate early from another large state school, was going to have to spend an extra semester in school because no one told her she was missing three upper-level classes needed to fulfill her degree requirements.
This friend too said she wondered whether she should be intervening more, though she was quick to note that her daughter’s adviser didn’t raise any flags about her plan when it was presented to him. Both this young woman and my friend’s son are basically smart, conscientious kids. Why do they still need so much parental guidance with these logistical questions?
It’s true that our children take longer to launch than they used to. They can be on our health insurance until 26 and in our basements forever. But it’s also true that life — or at least life’s paperwork — seems to have gotten more complicated and so maybe our emerging adults need our help more.
The number of forms that have to be filled out for school, employment, health insurance, car insurance, income taxes, the DMV, rental agreements, internet service, retirement accounts, HR disclosures, et cetera, seems infinite. The inboxes of adults are bombarded every minute with deadlines — some important, others less so.
I know plenty of bona fide grown-ups who fail at this every day. We miss the deadline to sign up our kids for soccer or we forget to get our car inspected in time or we forget to renew the parking pass or send in the insurance claim or file the receipts for reimbursement or book the hotel near our cousin’s wedding or change our password so that we are not locked out of our email account. Did our grandparents have never ending to-do lists? They had a lot to do — working, cleaning, shopping — and different problems from the ones we have today, but surely their lives were not so complicated.
And while it’s tempting to compare kids these days with kids in the 1970s and 80s — kids who could come home to an empty house and make themselves dinner, play unsupervised and manage just fine — it is also useful to compare what young adults had to do back then with what they have to do today. I have no doubt a Gen-Xer would be better able to survive in the wild than a millennial. They could successfully open a can of soup and maybe even build a fire. They could find their way home without a smartphone or GPS.
But spare a little sympathy for today’s 19-year-old who has to navigate all the public and private bureaucracies that seem to dominate our lives.
By the time I was 9 years old, I probably could have completed whatever forms were necessary for me to attend school or camp. Name? Check. Address? Check. Emergency phone number? Check. This past summer I had to fill out a combined 49 forms for my three children to attend a sleepover camp. Some of this is the result of too many frivolous lawsuits. But the point stands. If I can’t even put my teenager in charge of filling out forms for summer camp, why would I expect him or her to be able to navigate the administration of a major university?
It’s a laudable goal to make our young adults more self-sufficient. But it would be nice for them — and for us — if we could make the instructions a little less complicated. Until then, parents might have to keep on parenting even after our children are formally adults.