It was probably 10 years ago. The Dean of Students at the university where I serve was the guest of honor at a meeting of religious organization representatives. He was asked what the main focus of his department was for that particular year. I will never forget his answer: “Teaching life skills to students because nobody else is doing it.”
Nothing has really changed in the proceeding years. A recent opinion piece on the Dallas News website raised the issue of the lack of life skills among college students. The professor at the University of Texas recommended, based on her experience with current students, that home economics classes should be re-introduced in the nation’s secondary schools. She has observed the same thing as the Dean of Students at my school, and what I and many others working on university campuses have seen—the typical college freshman comes to campus with few skills in how to manage daily life. This has led to a skyrocketing rise in anxiety and depression because, as M. Scott Peck wrote as his first line in his classic book, The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” If during childhood, one is shielded from the difficulties of life, then he/she will be lacking in the ability to deal with the difficulties of adulthood that are far more serious.
Yet, this is exactly what is happening among so many children. In the New York Post this past summer, it was reported that a school in New Jersey lowered the standards required for participation on the cheerleading team because a parent complained when her daughter wasn’t chosen. Grade inflation, a practice where children are credited for higher quality work than they truly achieved, is also on the rise in our public schools. And, of course, most of us are familiar with the practice in children’s sports of everyone getting a trophy.
The cumulative effect of these practices and others that seek to lessen stress and bolster self-esteem is young adults who are unused to being challenged in any significant way. Unfortunately, real life offers many difficult challenges.
When I was a freshman in college, I enrolled in a World Literature class. The tenured professor began the first day by telling those who had yet to purchase their books for the class to leave and not come back. He said it demonstrated their lack of interest in the class. To those chewing gum, he also gave an invitation to leave the classroom. Finally, he said any student not really wanting to be in his class was welcome to drop it in favor of something else. The next class day, the class had shrunk from 30 to 15. When I received back my first paper, I was in shock. I had been told for a number of years that I was a good writer and I viewed myself as such, but my paper was covered in red ink and my grade was a D+. I didn’t complain; I just knew I had to try harder and follow his suggestions. My parents didn’t complain because I never told them, and, if I had, they wouldn’t have done anything but tell me to work harder.
And that is what I did. With each paper, my grade improved until I received an A- on my final one. To this day, I have great appreciation for that class and that professor. He didn’t allow shoddy work without penalty. When I received that A-, I felt such great satisfaction because it meant my paper was excellent! Having to grind my way through that class made me a better student and a better writer. It didn’t, as some might suppose, damage my self-esteem; it enhanced it because I felt truly accomplished.
So what can be done to change this trend among current young adults? The Texas professor recommends the re-introduction of home economics classes in public schools. I agree that would help. But what stood out to me was her willingness to absolve parents of any responsibility in this.
I’ve heard the argument that young people should learn these things from their parents, but my experience is that they don’t, for various reasons.
Some parents don’t have time. Some parents don’t have the skills. Some parents don’t think about it until it’s time for their kids to leave home. And, since part of teaching is exposing kids to your own situation, some parents don’t think it’s any of their kids’ business.
She echoes what the Dean of Students said, in effect, that since no one is doing it, it is our responsibility. In the short run, this is true and I welcome any attempt to teach young people life skills; however, in the long run, this is not a sustainable nor effective solution. At the heart of parenting is the goal of raising your children to become self-sufficient, productive adults. It is not prolonging adolescence, either intentionally or unintentionally. Parents are the key and as a culture it is not wise to let them off the hook so easily by lowering our expectations.
What I see on campus with students raised in Christian homes is very similar to the student population as a whole. This indicates to me that as the culture goes, so does the Church. However, throughout history, as exemplified by the teachings of the Jesus and the practices of the New Testament Church, the true Church has always been countercultural. Though common in the culture, idolatry was not tolerated. Though abuse of women and slaves was rampant, believers were told to treat them with respect and kindness. Though all kinds of conduct—sexual immorality, drunkenness, rage, gossip, etc.—were acceptable by the culture at large, believers were told to put aside the way they used to live and embrace a new way of life that honored God.
Now it seems the culture is leading Christian parents away from their God-given responsibility to raise their children. The emphasis is, rather, to let the professionals do it—coaches, teachers, musicians, counselors—because they have so much they can offer, and parents have little time in their busy schedules. The end result is others outside the family structure are having a greater influence on shaping children’s lives than do the parents.
If you are a parent, or anticipating being one someday, know that your primary role is helping your child become a well-functioning, responsible adult. It is not a responsibility you can contract out to others, although you may need assistance along the way. And remember that their adult lives are going to be difficult no matter what you do. Thus, it is much better to be intentional about preparing them for this reality instead of trying to protect them from it for as long as you can. They may not like it much at the time, but, like my experience with the English professor, they will come to greatly appreciate it when they reach adulthood.
© Jim Musser 2018