How to Prepare College Grads for Real World

Should you guide your kids, or just get out of their way?

My job is to warn my son Sam. He’s 22, with a year left of college. We’ve spent a lot of time together on the turnpike, the last three years, back and forth from his school near Harrisburg. The conversations have gotten interesting. It’s been a while since I asked him if he ever eats breakfast. Now he tells me what music he’s listening to—maybe Phish, or Miles Davis—or explains something about Nietzsche. These moments have no relation to what Sam will be doing a year or two from now. That’s what makes them so sweet. I don’t care anymore if he eats breakfast. We fly down the road with time on his side.

I’m a moron. Because I should be warning Sam about the way things really are. He thinks he’ll graduate next spring, get a job, get a place to live, move on with his life. And so, in fact, I have wised up: I’ve been suggesting to him that it might not work exactly the way he envisions. That he might be living at home for a while after school, perhaps a long while. That it’s not easy out there now, getting a foothold in blah blah blah…

My dilemma is pretty straightforward: I want Sam to remain young—a child—as long as possible. But I’m afraid the world is about to pound him, the moment he steps foot out the door as an adult.

A few days ago, I read something by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, that stopped me short: “No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness.”

He was talking about kids going from college to job. That openness is possibility—the nature of work, and how we live, is changing rapidly, so grads have to be creative, fast on their feet, ready to move and change. Yet up to the moment they get a real job, we set out the Cheerios for them, metaphorically speaking. (Although in my house, it’s not a metaphor.) We carefully order their worlds.

Now Sam’s home for the summer, taking a couple of courses at Penn State Abington, otherwise pretty much ensconced in his room, computer/cell phone/TV busy through the night, a command center from under the covers. It looks limited. It seems, even, a little paranoid.

Brooks also writes:

Worst of all, [college grads] are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. … Many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. … But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.

In other words, get on with it. True self is formed in the cauldron of life’s work, and work has become so complicated, there isn’t time for all this lying around finding oneself, for hours devoted merely to thinking.

Brooks is dead wrong. Why has time dried up? Exactly who has decreed what the pace of life is supposed to be?

The reason parents try to control so much, the reason we protect to the point of making it so difficult for our children to enter this brave new world, is that we’re paranoid. Our fear that they won’t make it, that they will fail, is itself the problem—it strips them of time. It takes away messing up and figuring it out on their own. It assumes all is lost if the grand plan for a life isn’t in place at 25. No wonder Sam and his younger brother Nick spend most nights in the safety of their bedroom, their thumbs on the controls. It’s escape. And, just maybe, part of a way toward themselves.

I’m going back to hitting the highway with Sam, of merely listening. I’ve discovered that he likes Sinatra. That his favorite philosopher is Kant. Maybe a year from now, he’s making pizza. That a problem?