Coddled students: it’s time to grow up

A case for breaking up with your parents and finding your independence

Will Pittman, Staff Writer

Ducks, when they are born, have a remarkable ability to survive on their own. Almost immediately, they can walk, see, and find their own food. They leave the nest days after hatching. The parents still protect the ducklings from predators early on, but within 50 to 60 days the young ducks leave their mom and become independent. This is also true of turkeys, swans, geese and other birds. They are called precocial species.
Altricial species, on the other hand, are ones that are born undeveloped at birth. Think of the cute little bald and shriveled baby bird, squeaking out blindly to the mom for food. They are completely dependent on their parents for the first few weeks of their lives, until they develop and are ready to leave the nest.
Both types of birds, of course, leave their nest and parents when they mature. They survive on their own and have complete independence.
Enter: Humans.
We are more like altricial birds. When a baby is born it cannot survive on its own. It cannot feed itself or stand or move. We don’t really have the ability to survive on our own until several years of maturing. For some 18 years we rely on our parents for support, for protection and for food. But like birds and all animals, our time to leave the nest and our parents is a necessary part of our growth.
What we have today is a generation of kids who have not left the nest or their parents. They have not made that progression into adulthood, into independence. Maybe they don’t live at their parents’ house physically, but they still reside within their nest of ideas and under their wing of protection and comfort.
The generation of still-kids I’m talking about are the ones I know and have seen at Washington and Lee University, but the problem is a lot broader than just here. More and more, we are seeing a society not of self-sufficient individuals but of coddled collectives, without a sense of self or the ability to think for oneself.
This should be the task of education. College should, at the very least, make you realize that your parents are not infallible. They raised you and instilled you with all sorts of ideas about how the world works or how it ought to, yes. You should love them and respect them, yes. But are you supposed to agree with them? Hell no.
Thinking for yourself starts with breaking away from your parents, and I don’t think it’s possible to become an individual, to become an adult really, without staving off a good portion of your parents’ influence.
Bill Dereschiwicz gives good advice on this in his book “Excellent Sheep”: “Don’t talk to your parents more than once a week, or even better, once a month. Don’t tell them your grades on papers or tests, or anything else about how you’re doing during the term. Don’t ask them for help of any kind. If they try to interfere with course selection or other aspects of your life, ask them politely to back off. If they don’t, ask them impolitely. Make it clear to them that this is your experience, not theirs.”
Following such advice is difficult. It means figuring out what classes you want to take on your own. It means not having Mom praise you for the A or admonish you for the B. It means getting a job or a work study so you don’t have to keep asking them for money. It means, god forbid, becoming your own person, capable of making your own decisions.
But at a school where I know a lot of kids that have the university do their laundry for them, where the moms and dads of juniors and seniors (21- and 22-year-olds!) are still helping Johnny move into his room, this may be an impossible ask.
Of course you are still dependent on your parents for a lot. They most likely pay for your college tuition, you probably still live with them when you aren’t at school, and so on. But what seems to be the prevailing thought at Washington and Lee is that you owe your parents something. That because they are paying a hefty tuition, because they have raised you and supported you all this time, you are obligated to do what they want you to do.
One of my friends remarked to me recently that he would love to take a gap year after graduation to experience new people and places and cultivate a sense of self, but that his Dad would kill him. He pays so much for me to go here and he expects that I will make a good career out of it, my friend said.
Now it’s worth asking what a good career is to my friend’s father. Is it one that my friend is passionate about, one that he found he loves and is well-suited to? Or does he mean a good career as one that makes good money? My bet is on the latter.
“What do you owe your parents?” Dereschiwicz wrote. “Love, and when they need it later, care, but not submission. Not your life. What do you owe your parents? Nothing. The family is not a business deal. You don’t ‘owe’ your parents; you have a relationship with them. When you are a child that relationship ought to involve obedience. Once you’re an adult, it has to involve independence.”
Part of the inability to be an individual stems from the way kids are being raised from the start. In their famous book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Gregg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt expose the issues with modern parenting. They discuss studies concerning how overprotective parenting has led to a myriad of issues, from peanut allergies to depression and anxiety. The helicopter parenting model, as it happens, is horrendous for child development.
Kids can now also communicate with their parents always and everywhere.
“It’s bad enough that today’s children are raised in a psychological hothouse where they are over-monitored and over-sheltered,” Hana Estroff Marano wrote in an article for Psychology Today. “But that hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that you can thank the cell phone.”
In other words, Mom or Dad can be texted or called at any inconvenience. Estroff Marano elaborates on this point.
“The perpetual access to parents infantilizes the young, keeping them in a permanent state of dependency,” she wrote. “Whenever the slightest difficulty arises they’re constantly referring to their parents for guidance. They’re not learning how to manage for themselves.”
When kids do finally leave home for college, is it any surprise that they remain under their parents’ wing? Financially, sure, but also psychologically, emotionally and ideologically.
To the college parents reading this, do your kids a favor. Take a step back. Support them, love them, but stop influencing their decisions. Stop deciding for them. Give them the freedom and space to figure things out for themselves, to carve out a path in this world that is their path.
And to the students, it’s daunting leaving the nest. Below, the abyss stares you in the face, vast and menacing, and you risk hitting the ground. It requires trust, a belief in yourself. It takes courage, but I promise you, your wings aren’t clipped.
You can fly.