Letting our children grow

When does it end? When is our job over? If we're talking about parenting the answer is obviously "Never." But that doesn't mean that there isn't a clear moment when we need to step aside, to let our children go forward and stop, purposefully, holding them back. And part of this is accepting the fact that  the minute they step out our door, and into the world, they're not going to another version of home.

A few months ago there was a hullabaloo at Yale when a group of students claimed they'd been deeply insulted by "insensitivity" on the part of a handful of faculty members (who'd dared to support the freedom of expression prior to the Halloween celebrations). They asserted that the atmosphere in which they lived (i.e. the dorm) was now, and hither forth, compromised;  a threatening environment and no longer a home.

The issue of college as a branch of one's family home was recently broached in The New York Times by a few members of the Yale faculty who hadn't been shamed by student reaction into taking hasty sabbaticals and departing campus. They expressed the opinion  that the contemporary effort to insure that college students feel coddled in their new environs,  (leaving aside issues of personal safety here), assuring a smooth transition from their former abode, actually denies them an important developmental opportunity.  They proposed that instead an extension of "home," college might better be considered a stepping stone in a young student's path forward toward adulthood. They supported this concept by recalling a time, just decades ago, when college involved a break from the creature comforts of the home, an absence of umbilical lines of communication and students weren't padded with protective committees and procedures there to ensure that nothing upset them.  Students' emotional growth was encouraged by their need to cope, an important part in becoming an adult.

From my perspective here in Israel this line of argument rings bells. What these scholars suggest is precisely what is built into the experience of each and every Israeli eighteen year old. Israeli children are, for the most part, not offered the opportunity to extend their home experience immediately after completing high school but instead, must necessarily leave their homes and become part of the vast military machine known as the IDF. And while I would much prefer that mandatory military service wasn't necessary, that Israel did not face daily threat from neighboring populations, it is hard not to embrace the way in which, called on to serve their country en masse, fresh graduates must step off the platform and take a leap into the real world. Instead of having the privilege to organize their days, indulge their whims, sport the hairstyle and clothes they prefer, cuddle into their new dormitories stuffed with multiple comforts and a staff charged with assuring their emotional comfort level, they must, instead, conform to someone else's bidding, timetable and rules of comportment. Their lives are, quite simply, not theirs to determine.

There is not one eighteen year old who doesn't find this a challenge. In truth of fact, life is a challenge. But this experience of the real world, one that makes demands and is not custom-made, one that is not entirely governed by personal choice and individual control; a world where young adults must necessarily, at times, beat to someone else's drum, is one huge leap toward adulthood.

I reiterate, I am not a huge proponent of military duty. But the benefits to high school graduates in terms of life-smarts and emotional development are well acknowledged and have, ironically, been touted in the recent initiative, headed by Harvard University, to encourage depth and meaningful commitment among college applicants. A two year stint in the military was actually the example suggested as a means of insuring that high school graduates channel more of their energy to non-academic pursuits with the corollary benefits of learning by doing unto others. Yes, one more developmental step forward.

I don't begrudge the luxury of the college years (in fact I'd go back in a flash and do it again) and here in Israel individuals in their twenties march off to university (just like their American cohorts a bit earlier) soon after completing their military duty, happy to spend their time in an environment  far more comfortable and catered to their needs than that which was offered in the barracks. Yet they don't make this transition expecting the  campus to be an extension of their childhood home. Instead, they understand it to be one more step toward achieving independent lives.

Although, as parents, we naturally try to protect and shield, to make sure our kids are safe from both physical discomfort as well as emotional trauma,  expecting the outside world to offer another version of the comfort we provide at home, is a mistake. Whether or not teenagers are hand-delivered to their dormitory from their family homestead in September, or shuttled back and forth on a bus to a military base each week, we're not going to be able to candy coat the realities that lie ahead. If we've done it right, if we've prepared them for this moment, we can stand aside, let them step into the scary unknown and watch them shine.