There is something about coming of age that is universal. It spans across cultures and time periods, stretching into all facets of humanity. Tribal cultures often marked this transition with a rite of passage into adulthood, whether that be a solo hunt, retreat into the woods, or a Sundance-like self-emasculation ritual. In Eastern Uganda, a rite of passage called Imbalu is practiced. This is a public circumcision taking place between the ages of 16 and 25 to pass into adulthood; one must remain stoic and show no signs of distress during the circumcision to be considered a man. Even the Amish and Mennonites, cultures which historically reject modern technology in favor of a simpler life, recognize this transition. The tradition of Rumspringa, meaning ‘running around’, is a time when adolescents in the community go off into the modern world and experience all of its pleasures and pitfalls. Some return to the community, completing the rite and reentering as an adult. Others opt to join the modern world, knowingly leaving everything they’ve ever known. Whatever the rite, whether it be grizzly, challenging, or enjoyable, the end result is the same; maturity. The United States is no exception when it comes to these transitions into adulthood although the vehicle through which this transformation is undertaken has changed over the years. It used to be war, as it was for many societies, but since WWII it has transitioned slowly to college. And it’s in trouble.
As I sit here in the Airbnb rental I booked for move-in weekend, I can’t help but be reminded that I’m not yet a professional at being an adult. Entrusted with booking the flights and reservations, I decided to be frugal. All of our flights went smoothly, but we hit a hitch in the road at the Airbnb. My choice to use the popular app for our stay was a big point of contention between me and my mom. She had heard horror stories from friends of their terrible Airbnb experiences, and she told me these stories over and over. I always countered that I’d just used it in Seattle with my brother and that our host and house were both exceptionally nice. I eventually convinced her by comparing prices of hotels to the Airbnb. But when we pulled up to our place in D.C., I was forced to eat my words from before. Though more expensive than my Seattle rental, this Airbnb was remarkably terrible. There was still garbage left from the last renters, the host was at least a little drunk when he came downstairs to greet us, half of the furniture was busted, and the guy was moving furniture into the floor above us until 11:30 pm. For myself, this place would’ve been fine, though I might have been mad at how rundown it was relative to cost per night. My mom, however, was understandably flustered by the conditions, and I could see her holding back the “I told you so” that was on the tip of her tongue. And yet the moral of the story isn’t to let your mom make your reservations; the moral is that she entrusted the travel itinerary to me in the first place, and I got it done by myself. It may have been rough, but we survived.
I’m currently staring down my own rite of passage. In seven short hours, I will move in to the Mecca, Howard University. I feel an exhilarating sense of adventure and excitement mixed with sadness at leaving my family. I am ready though, and I am ready because of my upbringing. Over the last three years, my mom has slowly given me more freedom and responsibility, a process that I feel is superior in preparing one for adulthood. Paired with my father’s independent spirit and a desire for self-sufficiency in life, I have grown into an adult. I mentioned earlier that college as a passage into adulthood is in trouble; I believe imbuing kids with a desire for independence and slowly giving it to them is the antidote to this problem. Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,says that the young adults she saw coming into Stanford were still profoundly child-like in their reliance on their parents. She argues the merits of self-efficacy and independence as a person and attributes the loss of this to parents who handle their children’s every need. Unheard of thirty years ago, Lythcott-Haims says the trend began to emerge and become more prevalent as Millennials came of college age. The blame for Millenials’ lack of independence ironically lies at the feet of the uber-independent Baby Boomer generation. Obsessed with personal achievement and competition, the Baby Boomers transformed their children into a means through which they could compete once more. Test scores, accolades in sports, and admission into a prestigious college all became symbols of one’s success as a parent. This transition has shifted the ambition from the student to the parents; it has changed parenting by making it exponentially more involved, with helicopter parenting becoming more and more prevalent.
The point of this post isn’t to bash parents who are involved in their kids’ lives and futures. I simply want to convey that, like anything, parenting can be overdone. If parents aim to raise functional adults, they would greatly benefit from treating their sons and daughters like able-minded adults. Allow your kids to make mistakes, test out adulthood, and feel the freedom little by little instead of keeping close tabs on them until they leave your house. Don’t constantly harp on them about homework. This may lead to some bad grades, but the adult who realizes the value of hard work on her own is much stronger than one who worked hard in high school simply to keep his parents off of his back. Allowing your children to learn by doing, making mistakes along the way, will let them emotionally develop in a complete way. If parents, and my generation when we have kids, stop this obsession with achievement we can restore our kids’ confidence and independence in life.