The most important lesson I can teach my daughter is how to fail

Even while my infant daughter is literally strapped to my chest right now almost everywhere we go, I’m constantly thinking about how to help her grow up into a resourceful, independent, confident woman.

That first lesson is teaching her how to sleep. Already, I am “appreciating” how many points of view there are on the “right” way to do this.

But I’ve written enough about that, and that’s not what I want to write about today.

Bruce Pratt’s recent editorial about the problems with UMaine’s student immaturity today really spoke to me. On one level, because I taught a college course last fall, and I somewhat observed what he described. On another level, because I was a college freshman not so long ago, and I somewhat experienced what he described. And on the level that I want to write about today, because 18 years from now I hope to send my own daughter to college.

Pratt’s salient point:

“… our retention problem originates with students arriving on campus without independent living skills.”

He goes on to describe several examples where his students were not emotionally prepared to exceed in college, for example, having their parents call to discuss their grades or provide excuses for missing class.

I was a freshman at UMaine 11 years ago. I remember the shock of living on my own. For the first time, I was the sole person responsible for the decisions that would guide my future. Where I slept at night, and how late I stayed out. What I bought for groceries. How I spent my money (omg they’ll let me get a credit card?!). Whether or not I attended class.

My parents were by no means unusually strict or permissive, at least, compared to my friends’ parents. But I still felt like this transition to adulthood was very sudden.

A few months ago I read another really great piece about how children are becoming more and more shut out of public spaces for fear of “stranger danger.” It’s an excerpt from a book about how teens interact online, but there is an obvious analog between our fear of children being victimized by strangers on the Internet and our fear of children being alone in public. In fact, there were several occasions this summer where parents (usually moms) were criticized for allowing their pre-pubescent children to go out in public alone, and last month a national survey by Reason.com revealed that the majority of Americans do not think that kids under 12 (that’s seventh grade) should be allowed to play alone.

The problem with limiting children’s freedom is that it keeps them from being able to learn the skills they need to live independently and take risks. From the essay:

Excluding teens from public places may give parents or politicians a sense of control, but it systematically disenfranchises youth from public life…. As a result, adult society isolates teens, limiting their opportunities to learn how to engage productively with public life.

I grew up in a major metropolitan area. My parents allowed me to walk to school on my own as young as 6. I also, for the most part, was the family’s computer guru and  grew up with unrestricted computer access.

If the transition college was hard for me … I can’t imagine what it must be like for this generation. Or what it will be like for my daughter.

Most of the voices that call out against how crazy restrictive society has become with children note that the crime rate in many places is lower than it’s ever been and that children are like, a hundred times more likely to be victimized by someone they know. And they are right.

Coincidentally, in the neighborhood where I grew up, on the road I walked to school, my father was a victim of a random act of violence while he was walking to the train station for his morning commute. It was the summer when I was seven years old. It was a dramatic and disturbing event, and part of the reason why my parents would move us to Maine, seven years later.

But no, it wasn’t like my parents, or the parents of the half-dozen kids who lived on my block and walked with my siblings and me, had us stop walking to school after that happened. Instead, I remember the families in our community supporting my parents as my dad recovered, and looking out for each other and their kids, too.

And I did not grow up with a paralyzing fear of the world around me.

I know that allowing a first-grader to walk to school on her own might seem like a stretch to compare it to a college student who can’t handle her own laundry. But it’s not. There’s a lot of blame thrown around here — from the university that accepts kids who aren’t ready, to the helicopter parents who are over-involved in their kids lives, to the media that blows crime out of proportion, to the kids themselves.

I’m not sure where the answer is on how to stop the cycle. But I think about it as I’ve started to put my six-week-old to bed, in her own room, lying quietly awake, fingers crossed that she won’t start crying this time when I leave.

Pattie Reaves

About Pattie Reaves

By day, I'm the User Experience and Audience Manager for the Bangor Daily News. By night, I'm a soon-to-be first-time mom and renegade fitness blogger at After the Couch. I live in Brewer with my husband, Tony, and our two pugs, Georgia and Scoop.