My daughter went back to college a couple weeks ago after being home for the winter break. I thought that she would be about 24 years old before I would have this feeling that is exploding from my heart. I can’t really put my finger on it exactly. Satisfaction? No, not big enough. Vindication? No, too dramatic. Elation? Yes, that is it. I am elated. Not that she left. Rather, I am elated that, after just one quarter of college, we have definitive proof that we accomplished some big things we set out to do as parents. Before I go on, I will admit that I made plenty of mistakes as a parent. It is impossible not to make mistakes. Parenting is the most complex undertaking in life, I believe. Also, I should share, there are many things about our daughter that we are proud of other than the ones in this post. The things I am going to share are things that I think every young adult should learn before getting luggage or tuition, and being sent out into the world.
Ultimately, our goal was for our daughter to leave our house at 18, able to navigate the adult world secure in the knowledge that she had the skills to be successful and independent. I believe that people do not learn how to be an adult when they are 18. They begin learning as soon as they try out their first “NO!” As with any skill, adulthood has to be scaffolded with a gradual exchange of responsibility and a commensurate increase in freedom. For example, one of our goals was for her to be able to travel alone safely as an adult. When she was little, she traveled with me by airplane. I helped her pack, understand boarding passes, handle bags, get through security, and navigate the plane. Then, she traveled by plane with a friend, and parents waiting at each terminal. She experienced being alone on the plane and having to get her needs met. Next, she traveled with her team by airplane, and I traveled on another plane (because I am smart). She was able to do most of what she needed to do, but her safety net (coach) was right there. She traveled to the opposite corner of the country with a friend on a plane, navigating major airports. She did everything on her own. Last thanksgiving, she even booked her own flight. Gradual exchange of responsibility from me to her. She had chances to make mistakes, with a safety net. Though that safety net was about the same through all of this, she used it less and less. And when there were problems, we started by asking what she could do to solve the problem. As a result, she learned that she could trust herself to solve problems and advocate for herself. Children need opportunities to try, and even fail, if they are to learn.
These are not in age or priority order. They are all equally important to us.
Banking and Money: We opened a bank account for her quite young. She went to the bank with us to deposit her money. While we provided for her needs, we reminded her that she had her own money if she wanted to buy something that we did not want to buy for her. I remember the day we were shopping when she admitted, “I like it enough if you are buying it, but not if I am.” We laughed. No one bought that sweater. Our gauge became: Would you buy this, if you had to pay for it? As soon as she was old enough, she got her a debit card. Keeping track of it and her money became her responsibility. Our accounts were linked, and I got alerts on her spending. I never intervened unless I thought there was a possibility of fraud. As soon as she was old enough, she got a small credit card to establish credit. She learned what it means to have a bill you must pay.
Work: There are things you can only learn working for someone other than your parent. She babysat in middle school, and got her first job in high school. Her fist couple of jobs had big challenges. She learned that money is earned. She learned how hard and how long you have to work to save up money. She learned about being on time, and having a positive attitude even when you really don’t want to do something. She also learned that if you don’t like your job, you can go get another one, but it is always best to leave on good terms. From unpaid internships, she learned that sometimes you can earn something that pays off big dividends on your future.
Rights: She probably would not agree, but one job in particular taught her a painful but necessary lesson. She has rights. Though an employee, she has the power to advocate for herself and protect herself. We taught her about Labor and Industries, and employee rights. We showed her how to research the law and file a complaint. This was one I had not really planned for because I never had to assert my employment rights, fortunately. I could see that she felt she could not stand up to her boss for fear she would be fired even though she was in the right. Though I helped her navigate the process, she filed her complaint on her own. It was a powerful lesson for us all.
Self-Advocacy and Negotiation: These are skills best learned young. Believe me, the first time she shouted “No” at me, I was not thinking this. But we quickly realized that, if she learned she must mindlessly submit to anyone in authority or power, we would be diminishing her power as a human and putting her potentially in danger. We wanted her to trust her gut and set boundaries for the treatment she would accept form others. I heard too many stories from teens who were assaulted because they did not feel they had the power to say “stop” or “no”. We also wanted her to have the confidence to state her case to get her needs met or to address an injustice. Let your child talk to their teacher when there is a problem. Coach them about who to talk to when they need help. Stepping in feels supportive as a parent. To a teen, it can communicate that you do not believe that they can solve their problem on their own.
Self-Management: This is a hard one as a parent because it is so hard to see your child unhappy. But it is important. Children need to have some freedom to make choices that could have positive or negative consequences. Then they have to experience living with the consequences, good and bad. Take homework for example, she was allowed to manage when and where she did it until she began missing assignments. Then we set a time and place. We also set expectations around how she could get that freedom back. We never had to talk about homework again. She apparently did not enjoy studying with me at the kitchen table as much as I enjoyed spending the time with her.
Cell Phones: They are a fact of life. The sooner kids learn to use one appropriately, the better. We bought her a cell phone when she entered middle school so that we could be in touch with her in an emergency. We made it very clear that we owned the phone and could revoke it if she violated the rules. We talked about safety rules. Though we felt the need to do it, we were clear that we would read her texts if a problem occurred, or we felt she was in danger. She loved her phone. We only had to take it away one time.
Social Media: I was a high school principal so I knew all too well the devastating mistakes developing and impulsive minds could make. I was initially very much against allowing her to have any social media. But then I realized that she was eventually going to have it. Since to that point I knew nothing about it, she could have set up social media and I might not even have known she did. We all needed to learn about online safety. She needed to practice using social media with supervision to prevent bigger mistakes later. There were only a few issues but they were great opportunities to talk about how easily things can go wrong on social media.
Grocery Shopping: This seems a bit silly because kids usually go to the store with a parent at some point. There is a big difference between tagging along, dropping protein bars in the basket when your dad isn’t looking, and actually planning for a week of healthy eating. We sent her periodically to the store with a budget and a list to do the family shopping. As a college student, she understands how much cheaper it is to buy food at the store and cook it at home, than to go out for dinner. She understands how to select fruits and vegetables, check expiration dates, and read labels. For the record, her dad gets all the credit for this one.
Cooking: We started this one pretty late because she was an athlete who was often home late. It did not make sense to have her cook after school and practice. In her senior year, she took an interest in nutrition and learned to cook. You are at the mercy of cafeterias and restaurants in the dorms. But when you move out, you might be eating a lot of soup and frozen dinners, if you don’t know how to cook. Again, her dad gets all the credit here. I do know how to cook, but he is much better at it!
Laundry: Need I say more?
Doctor and Dentist Appointments: This grew from necessity, but turned out to be a great skill. I could not manage her schedule and mine. Eventually in exasperation, I told her to call her doctor and make the appointment. We gave her an insurance card and explained how insurance works. Ultimately, she was comfortable going to appointments alone and advocating for herself.
I remember when she was in high school and she said to me, “I am adulting all over the place.” I thought it was cute. I mean, it’s not like she had to worry about a mortgage. I realized over this winter break, that she was adulting all over the place. Every day, she is adulting more and more. She is right on schedule. When she moves into her apartment next year, I won’t have to worry about whether or not she will be able to feel herself, pay rent, or keep herself safe. I also know that she understands that she can always ask for help or advice. Even adults need a safety net.
Adulting All Over The Place