Tag Archives: parenting

Looking for a Spark Inside

At some point a student must realize they should be going to college for themselves, not their parents.

We can all celebrate the virtues of listening to others. It’s usually a winning trait for all of us in the business of communicating.  But like every communication virtue, it can have a dark corner.  Even an attentive person can be adrift. Conforming to expectations can substitute for acquiring enough self-knowledge to know what we need for ourselves.

This challenge comes up periodically as I meet young adults who are planning their college careers. They are wary and often a bit confused. In addition, most are young enough to have not put much effort into figuring out what matters. So many are intent on passing on the task of planning their future to their parents.  That includes what they will do in college.  When asking about their interests, I tend to get restatements of what passes for parental wisdom about not “wasting their time” with “useless” subjects. Thirty years ago it would have been unusual to hear a student tell a faculty advisor what their parents want them to study.  Now it happens a lot.

So in my own field of Communication Studies, nearly all parents on a campus visit expect a tour of our television studio, even though a lot modern film and video production occurs out in the world.  I think the studio is reassuring because it reminds them of a workplace.  But they are several decades behind the times in terms of where the real action is in shooting video.

We all know parents.  They are mostly good people and are used to being in charge.  A common scenario has their young adult children skipping over the possibility of considering their own passions while uncritically accepting advice from a  generation’s experiences from the dark ages. In most cases they  would be better advised to follow their own star.  Like Benjamin in the film classic, The Graduate, these young people are often on the verge of being locked into a narrative that is not their own.

So, of course, I have an answer for them.  Sure, respect your parents’ experiences.  But at some point, a student needs to realize they are going to college for themselves, not their relatives. Set aside news coverage of pathetic helicopter parents trying to buy their child’s “prestigious” education with flat-out deception. More common is the number of students in undergraduate institutions who like the aura of a college degree, but lack the self-knowledge to know what it ought to be. A course in Medieval Art?  The predictable advice  from anxious parents is that they are wasting their time. Many wrongly assume their son or daughter has enrolled in a kind of trade school that will yield one particular job, not a liberal arts education.  Many are also unaware of fields of study and occupations that have sprung up since they graduated.

I sometimes see a student who has no interest in my field.   But they are ready to take bad advice and labor on.  In other cases I see students in supposedly “safe” business majors who have not noticed their own talents lie in other areas.  I’ve got good news:  businesses of all types are full of people without business degrees.

My hope for these students is that they will choose a course of study that excites them.  If it’s Medieval art, go for it.  Right now medievalists are on the world’s front pages reminding readers about the stunning arts that made Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris possible. Life has a way of opening up opportunities that we might never expect.

Putting the Squeeze on Tired Parents


commons wikimedia.org
                           commons wikimedia.org

A caution about avoiding the use of a common sanity-saver could not help but raise the dissonance level of already stretched parents.

The concern to raise kids that are well launched into this world remains high on the list of goals parents set for themselves. This seems especially true for those first-time owners of a brand new infant who have also been exposed to the behavioral sciences. Little did they know at the time that those required college courses in psychology would firmly plant the seed for the view that early child-rearing choices may have monumental consequences later on.

This is one reason parenting has gone from being something that just happens along the bumpy path of life to becoming a consequential obligation that must be mastered. There is the added realization that even a decades-long commitment is no guarantee that a near-perfect original will emerge.  Parents have always wanted the best for their kids. And there are many routes to successful childrearing. But the current financial and existential squeeze especially on the middle class creates adds pressure to deliver children to the world who are ready to compete on the fastest tracks of success.

No wonder modern families are stretched.  In addition to higher child-rearing expectations, many external factors add to the burden. In more regions of the country it now takes two incomes to support a household. Add to the mix  the required tools of competent child-rearing—a virtual armada of furniture, expensive child carriers, monitors, pediatricians, learning toys and the right food. And then there are the mostly self-induced distractions that still define the aspirations of early adulthood: showing a game face on social media, meeting the needs of relatives and grandparents, child care costs, having a social life, and fulfilling the desire to take advantage of what media and the larger culture can offer. No wonder these working parents feel stretched to the limit.

So it’s no surprise that a widely discussed piece of advice coming from the prestigious American Academy of Pediatrics would be greeted with a wince more than an embrace.  The wording of a caution about avoiding the use of a common-sanity saver could not help but raise the dissonance level in this already stretched group. The advice?  The academy cautions parents to not expose their toddlers to screens of any kind.

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

We are accustomed to recommendations from medical professionals that put the squeeze on cherished habits.  But this one cannot help but create ambivalence in parents who know well the pacifying tendencies of glowing screens. Has the Academy never noticed that a child in complete meltdown rejoins the human race if bought off with a youtube video or a favorite cartoon show?  Isn’t that why the tablet was invented?  What unwired planet do the members of the Academy inhabit?

There is a serious issue here. Screens are addictive. And they do tend to still a restless and active child.

There is a serious issue here. Screens are addictive. And they do tend to still a restless and active child. That restlessness is the source of endless daily cycles of curiosity and exploration that are essential to the growing process. Childhood is where self-motivated learning is either fostered or mostly extinguished.

I’ve written many times about the effects of “screen thrall,” the semi-frozen state of immobility that comes over most children and adults caught by the need to follow others  continuously on a video. To be sure, much of this content engages.  But the level of engagement is better labeled para-social rather than fully “social.”1  Our involvement with screen characters is obviously stunted by the “one-way” nature of the medium.

One effect extended into older childhood shows up in one telling observation that many older adults report: the near absence of children playing alone or with others outside their homes or in nearby parks. It seems that too many American children have vacated the safe open spaces that these adults remember and romanticize from their own pasts.


1Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place (New York: Oxford, 1985), 118-121.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu