At my son’s high school graduation party, a father of three kids in their twenties asked me, “So are you ready to give him the heave ho yet?” The question was prompted by the phenomenon of many American high school seniors becoming distinctly unpleasant creatures, at least in their home environment. While living in Dublin I noticed that the Irish version of senioritis angst was much milder. Here’s why: The majority of college-bound Irish students choose to study close to home. In Dublin it was simply taken as a given that most kids would attend one of three universities located in the city. Therefore a high school career would naturally be followed by several more years of living under the parental roof. No dorm or apartment fees required. It was an eminently practical situation, not in any way burdened by the American expectation that moving away from home is part of the total college experience. In contrast, here in Boston, I know a young woman who grew up just outside of the Boston University campus, but would not dream of living at home when she enrolls there this fall as a freshman.
This college domicile difference had a major trickle down effect on family relations. Namely, Irish kids knew that they needed to keep home life stable and they seemed to gracefully morph into a new relationship with their parents, without the extended teenage fireworks common in American homes. I’m not saying they didn’t ever raise hell and provoke new crops of gray hair on their parents’ heads. They did, briefly, usually around age 15 or 16 (just before they had to buckle down to serious study for their last two years of exam preparation.) But as higher education approached, they usually seemed to settle in to a calmer domestic existence. Something fairly respectful and adult-like.
In contrast, college-bound American kids know that by age 17 or 18 they will be out of the house, more or less for good. For a lot of kids (and parents) this departure comes awfully early in the maturity or development or simple preparedness of the kid. So, even though they may not really want to leave, or may be wildly fearful about the future, loads of formerly pleasant and cooperative American teenagers go into a year of high-gear effort to make home as uncomfortable and unappealing as possible. (Not my son, of course!)
A mother of a high school senior summed it up, “Well it’s pretty much like falling out of love. The exiting lover [teenager] goes into a mode of finding fault with their former beloved and proving to him or herself that it is really time to leave.”
I remember when the father of the grown kids I mentioned above was going through this high school senior period with his formerly-perfect oldest daughter. (And I really mean perfect. People would meet Amanda and say, “I don’t just want a daughter. I want an Amanda.”) During her senior year, Amanda became highly self-absorbed and thoughtless (doing things like leaving the tea-kettle on to boil dry and nearly catching the house on fire), and she fought with her father at the drop of a hat. At the time I asked him how he was surviving this radically different daughter and he said, “Well I always manage to still love Amanda, but I am having a much harder time finding a way to actually like her.”
There’s a deeper, richer phenomenon at work here. American families are child-centered, especially upper middle class ones. Irish ones are, well, family centered. The schedules, commitments, and resources of the family are balanced to include parent, grand-parent and overall household needs. So whereas my local American friend Justine (a lawyer with a demanding career) is willing to spend an entire afternoon getting her daughter to horse-riding lessons, my Irish mother friends would either laugh at the notion of leaving work to do that, or simply hand their equestrian-inclined child a bus schedule to get themselves to the horse barn.
So, after this cushy US childhood existence, as well as our culture’s general tendency to expect teenagers to turn into aliens, it’s no wonder that a lot of high school seniors have trouble with the transition out of the house. It’s early. It’s hard. But it has to be done.
When I watch this, though, I wonder if living away from home really is all that essential. Irish kids have a great college experience, they save beaucoup bucks, and turn out to be perfectly responsible adults. Until I lived there I would have defended the absolute necessity to move out of the parental nest to complete the college experience. But maybe there is just a different way to structure the nest.