As kids start leaving for college, it's nice — or maybe just weird — to know that at least one university is offering a new class this fall: "Adulting."
The program at East Carolina University will attempt to teach incoming students how to be successful adults. Sadly, this does not involve tips on how to pick stocks, or even friends. It's a class on how to roll with some punches.
Noting an increase of 1,800 counseling appointments over just two school years — which required the hiring of two new counselors — the university wondered if there was some way to make its students more resilient. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy conducted a study and came to realize the root of the problem: "Students don't have an opportunity as much these days to manage failure, they don't experience it in certain ways as much so they don't know how to manage it when it happens," she told The Daily Reflector, a local paper.
Now, it is anybody's guess whether young people really can't handle distress or are simply more accustomed than earlier generations were with turning to mental health professionals. And there's something to be said for getting help rather than descending into darkness. There's even something to be said for learning how to shut off the "You are a loser" tape-loop in the brain, which is a stated goal of the class. As a college student, I wish I could have shut off mine.
But as Boston College psych professor Peter Gray has noted in his work on resilience: At least some college students seems to be seeking help for problems they could solve themselves. At his college, for instance, one student sought counseling after seeing a mouse in the dorm. Another came in after a spat with a roommate.
So the dark underbelly of being mature enough to seek help is being immature enough to find everyday ups and downs overwhelming. Thus the class at East Carolina U. will teach students that setbacks are a normal part of life, as is frustration.
In other words: It hopes to teach young people — at last — how to deal.
This is exactly the life lesson we have, in our love and worry, failed to give our kids. Instead, for the past generation or two we have been always at their side, overseeing them, monitoring them, making sure they're OK ... to the point where they aren't. This isn't solely the fault of neurotic parents — the whole culture is complicit. My kids went to a variety of public middle and high schools and all of these had tracking systems that allowed us to check how they did on homework, quizzes and tests — daily!
That's a level of scrutiny no one expected of my own parents. It assumes that intense parental oversight is normal, even necessary. How intense? In some other cities, parents can log on and find out exactly which items their kids chose from the lunch line.
But worst of all is the way adults have taken over play. Today's children grow up with their elders ever present to organize the game, settle the scores and slice the snacks. They never even get a chance to choose the teams (talk about a people skill!) because adults do it all.
Then these kids get to college and, for the first time, there's no adult intermediary. Off they go to find one.
So now, even as it offers its adulting class, East Carolina intends to reach out to elementary, middle and high schools and try to restore some childhood resiliency. It's not such a tall order. Simply by giving kids a little more unsupervised time when they're young we can create students who are more ready — and happy! — to become unsupervised adults.