Column: The greatest gift we can give to graduates


For the Valley News

Published: 06-07-2024 3:47 PM

How are parents to feel about their student’s graduation? Graduations celebrate accomplishments; they are also good-byes with eyes on the prize of what’s ahead. And yet, everywhere around you, parents and young adults are clinging to each other, never letting go.

Have we been brain-washed by a culture that flees from tensions, the tensions of endings, a culture that turns every developmental step into a Michael Jackson moon-walk, a step that backslides?

Ideally, graduations recognize growth and change. Students grab their diplomas and glory in their achievement, savoring the pride of their family and school. Then they race off to pursue their adult life, freed from the constraints of parents and classes and eager to shoulder the approaching challenges. For the high school graduate, it’s college, vocational training, or a job.

For the college graduate, it’s a career or graduate or professional school — we hope. Parents grieve and exult, regret and relax, confused by their mixture of sorrow and relief. And they are proud: proud of their child and themselves, proud that they’ve all survived this critical job, a job they’d done by the seat of their pants. It’s a developmental milestone for everyone.

But of course, it’s never that simple. It’s a tortured milestone. The young adult wants to stay, or move back, home; or expects the parent to fund a year of self-indulgent travel. Parents have nightmares of the graduate sleeping late and playing video games, asking for money to visit a friend or attend a concert. The inaugural days of adulthood stagnate; the child becomes an inert mass, immoveable. The parents despair over how to get disentangled.

Admittedly, I exaggerate the contrast between progress and retreat. In reality, we all — parents and teens, adults old and young — resist developmental steps. Throughout life, we navigate progressive and regressive pulls. We catch the forward momentum of growth, only to get caught in the eddy of a backwards tug. Everyone agonizes over growth and change, feeling:

■ sadness and loss about limits;

■ anger, remorse and guilt for what might have been;

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■ anxiety about one’s ability to handle what’s next;

■ covetousness of the path not taken;

■ guilt about exceeding “our place.”

When we can’t handle the feelings, we bury or disguise them. We like having the graduate at home. We want to give them a chance to regroup and trust that they will eventually find their way. Masters of self-deception, we trick ourselves with rationalizations:

■ Everyone needs to reset before shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood;

■ My child is disabled and can’t be held to the usual expectations;

■ The economy is a mess and there’s not enough housing.

It is true that there are challenging external realities. More people want to live here than we have housing for them. This makes it hard for young adults to get their start. And certainly, a disability creates extra obstacles to overcome. But the greatest obstacle is the psychological trap that ensnares both the young adult and parents, an emotional minefield that the stuck family avoids, but must confront to sustain developmental momentum. When the young adult and parents evade the conflict, everyone gets stuck.

Parents don’t want to hold their children back. But the present culture makes it too easy to do. The culture encourages parents to keep them close, to text the young adult daily, to send money on demand, to run interference with college administrators and landlords, to rent their basement to their 20-somethings. It’s like childhood never ends. It’s tempting to blame the problem of prolonged childhood on the culture, but remember, the culture reflects our secret inclinations.

The move to adulthood isn’t just about where the graduate lives or whether they go to school or get a job. It’s about the parents’ mental shift — from giving care and oversight, to letting the young adult make their own way in the world, shouldering the consequences of their decisions, and moving towards financial independence.

Ideally, parents have practiced this mental shift from the beginning. Every step of the way, parents teach their child to do more and more for themselves. They gradually enlarge the child’s sphere of “being in charge” and shrink the empire of parental responsibility. Parents remember the joy of their child’s first steps. They remember the bittersweet relief when their child graduates from diapers to toilet. From food to baths to clothes to homework, parents work to get out of the way and promote their child’s autonomy. And so it is with this last transition, when the young adult emerges from the protective cocoon of family and takes their own place in the world, a contributing member of the next generation. Eventually, parental oversight (so temptingly easy with cellphones) and provision of crash pads and bail-outs must end. That’s what maintains developmental momentum — the growth-enhancing opportunities to develop judgment, make decisions and learn from experience. That keeps everyone growing sturdier.

Graduation challenges both graduates and their parents to face emotional complexity, to leave childhood behind, and to commence with their own lives. The best graduation gift is: a loving push from the nest and assurances that your fledgling can fly. It’s a gift that depends on examination of your own feelings about their growing up.

Miriam Voran, Ph.D., has a psychotherapy practice in West Lebanon and Montpelier. She is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.