Friday, September 2, 2011

College Freshman: Time to 'Build Character' with Challenges?

Our son started college in LA last week, a stressful but exhilarating time, leaving home, arriving in a strange town, adjusting to an unfamiliar campus and four professorial personalities who determine hours of his mornings and most of his free time.  Perhaps the most useful part of college, I hold, is learning to negotiate and navigate for oneself.

Then our son found himself in a situation where he needed to find a new place to live.  This caused some conflict between us, which was informed, upon reflection, by an underlying belief on my part that it's good for college freshmen to suffer.

OK, that's a more extreme version of my belief.  Actually, I think a large part of the benefit of college is learning to deal with poverty and discomfort, not getting what the freshman wants all the time, not "having it all handed on a silver platter."  I think 19-year-olds learn from grumpy and slothful roommates about their own desires for order, and how to deal with difficult people.  I think they gain empathy and a work ethic by serving in any of the many minimum-wage jobs typically handled by kids their ages.

Needless to say, my son disagrees.  He thinks the inherent difficulties of being a freshman in an awesome but unknown place are challenge enough, and that if we're blessed to be able to afford it, he shouldn't have to work just to have the experience.  He considers his job to be working hard in college and getting excellent grades, to enable him to continue his education pursuant to his career goals.

Perhaps it's because I had to work in a minimum-wage job I hated from the age of 16 that I feel "the school of hard knocks" confers a worthwhile degree.  After awhile, I got a better job, and then a darn good one, but a stint at the bottom was valuable.  Or do I just like to think so?

In my mind, dorm life is helpful to the development of a college freshman. At the least, sharing a domicile with a diverse array of styles prepares for family life and forces roomies to forge some sort of relationships. Eating dorm food with others is a socializing step. But my son replies that having his own apartment will let him avoid the strife, noise and mess of an unpredictable cohort, and control of his own fridge and own kitchen is even more "adult."

In my heart-of-hearts, I hold there's a time of life when overcoming obstacles girds one to endure trials sure to occur later on, and part of me feels that by smoothing the way I'm denying him a gift.  On the other hand, do I wish I didn't have that horrid job when I was 16?  I resent to this day sitting inside a building tending 300 clients of an answering service (stuck sitting in front of two vertical boards of holes into which I plugged octopus-like cords) while my friends enjoyed all the fun of after-high-school activities.  But it taught me to be responsible for myself, and that I could do whatever it takes to survive.

I've tried to inculcate that in my children while sparing them from such resentment or burdens. What parent wouldn't give her children the carefree youth she craved?  What parent doesn't delight in fostering his child's success, as long as the child comes through and actually performs?

I'm still conflicted, though. As my son prepares to move into his apartment, intent on staying abreast in his studies and integrating into the LA Jewish community with classes and synagogue, am I depriving him of important learning opportunities, or encouraging his flourishing?  He insists, with ample gratitude and reassurance, that it's the latter, but I suppose it all remains to be seen.

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