This is a storytelling session, so I’m going to begin my talk with a story. Once upon a time, a child came upon a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. And filled with compassion, the child helped by peeling back the papery shell, and soon, the butterfly emerged. But it could not fly.
As it turns out, the butterfly needed the process of struggling on its own in order to be able to fly. As a college dean, I’ve spent a lot of time observing 18- to 24-year-old humans in their natural habitat. It is a true joy to work with this population, to be alongside them as they emerge. But I have to say, what worries me and my colleagues nation-wide is the steady decline in the number of them who seem capable of going out into the world as adults. And set against the backdrop of this context, to me, the butterfly allegory is a warning.
I am also a parent, and I know we parents want to do all we can for our kids, but I’m worried that in American middle and upper-middle class society today, with the best of intentions, we’ve constructed what I call “the padded cell of childhood.” Nervous giggle. Do you know what I am talking about? Everything is safe; everything is planned. We tell them they are great, we solve their problems, we are there to catch them and prevent them from falling or failing, and within the padded cell, they are protected from having to figure things out on their own, from having to cope with disappointment, from learning what makes them happy. We hover, we hover over them to ensure their success, poised to intervene when needed. And you know what the message we send is when we do that?
We are sending the message, “Hey, kid. I don’t trust that you can do this without me.” And from the padded cell can sometimes emerge an “adult child” who’s happy when the parent calls the professor, or the landlord, or the company. Let that sit with you for a moment. As concerning as the parent behavior is, what I find truly alarming is the sedate contentedness of this small but growing number of young people who’ve been raised this way.
Sure, they can tell us what they’ve accomplished, but not necessarily who they are, what they want, how they’ll make their way. You know, because actually, life isn’t a padded cell, it’s a wide-open landscape of possibility, and yeah, their parents are in the landscape now, but they won’t be forever; and then, what? And in the meantime, metal health concerns are rising, and more and more 20-somethings are moving back home. I have to say, I’m a little bit worried about what this means for us as humans – survival of the species and all that – but I still think there is time for us to do right by these amazing, young people in our midst: our children, our future.
They need to find their own voice and honor what they hear. We need to back off; it’s our job as parents to put ourselves out of a job, and we succeed only if we’ve raised an independent adult. Sure, we want to know our offspring are going to emerge from that chrysalis; but it’s their job to do so. It’s their job to fly. Thank you.