I received a phone call this week from a good friend who just found out that her college student was on academic probation and not allowed to return to school for the spring semester. She called me for advice because she knew our family had been down this same rocky road a year ago. The call brought back many of the thoughts and emotions from those first weeks after we received the news – anger, embarrassment, sadness, worries about depression in our child. And then the inevitable, What is the next step? How do we support our child moving forward in finding another path, while also addressing the financial loss that has occurred? How do we fit a 20 year old back into a busy home life for another year?
The hardest part for me to get past was the anger at my child for not taking advantage of the opportunities that he had been provided. When he struggled in high school with task management, we had paid for tutoring and organizational help. When he started to struggle in college, I had helped find counseling appointments. In retrospect, too much of the aide was “I” driven and there was not enough ownership from the child. Now that he has found a career choice that interests him, school has become much more successful. He is still living at home, as he thinks the structure and accountability are helpful. Room and board are also much cheaper!
After getting past my anger and moving on to acceptance, there was the matter of informing friends and relatives. This is where the embarrassment kicked in. What would others think of my parenting skills to have this happen? Had I been too strict or too lax? While friends and co-workers were telling stories of college acceptance letters for their child, I was helping a son move out of his dorm and into an unused bedroom. But the embarrassment was my issue to deal with, not my child’s, and after telling a few close friends and family, I only received compassion and many stories about successful people who had been in a similar circumstance.
Finally we had to negotiate the boundaries of parenting a child who had failed but who was trying to find his place in life, work and have some sort of social life outside of his family with all his friends being away at college. The first few months were not easy – a full time job that was physical labor helped immensely to get him out of the house and tired by the end of the day. Harder for me was learning how to step back and let him lead the way. This was his journey, not mine, and although I was responsible to give consequences when needed, he needed to feel that he was in charge so that when success happened, he would have ownership.
Since this experience, I have become a believer in a “gap year(s)” for some kids, especially boys. Our German exchange student is spending a year working/traveling in Australia and South America. This is a very common experience for many Australian and European students – a time to decide where they want their lives to lead them in addition to navigating the ropes of independence without the added burden of school. In America, the last 2 years of high school are wrapped up in performing well in school while at the same time taking college entrance tests, visiting colleges and filling out applications. We expect our students to either start college at age 18 or get a manual labor job and never have a shot at post-secondary education. If we had the expectation that a gap year resulted in a more motivated/independent college student, I think more parents and students alike would consider this option.
So much has been written about parenting babies, toddlers, adolescents and teens. Mothering young adults seems much more difficult and you don’t have many second chances for a redo, like you do with toddlers. Hopefully we are getting it right – only time will tell.