Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Incubator

Late adolescents and young adults need space and time to develop an authentic self.  While there are of course a great many contexts in which this can occur, perhaps few are better suited to the purpose than the higher education environment.  In my view, when carried out well, this is a major benefit of the college experience.

During such a time, youth are exposed to ideas, knowledge, experiences, social feedback, and a wide range of relationships which either enhance or detract from personal growth and fulfillment of latent promise.  A forming adult can benefit immensely from this environment, which represents an incubator of the emerging self.  In this way students experiment, explore and try on various selves to see for themselves which one fits and works the best.

It is both an exciting and trying time, for students as well as those around them, especially loved ones.  The experimentation brings highs and lows, successes and failures, flashes of brilliance and the pain of mistakes.  But these ups and downs are absolutely necessary, assuming we all want to produce healthy, competent and productive adults.  Older adults, be they professors, administrators, family members or friends, simply must respect the need for this period of incubation.  Sheltering young adults from all pains can harm them significantly, though we should of course protect them from the most serious ones if we are capable of doing so.  There were times in human history when there was no such thing as this kind of incubation, due to the hardship of living many faced.  But we are able to, and should, provide this now.

Respect requires allowing enough space and time for growth to occur.  For parents this means gritting one's teeth, teaching what one knows but allowing students to venture off, even when mistakes are a near certainty.  Doing this, a sense of faith and trust is communicated, which is the fuel on which the emerging self thrives.  It means patience in the face of a tattoo, purple hair, exploring a major which is a "bad choice", financial incompetence, or partnering which causes heartburn.  The incubation can take a very long time, but learning does in fact occur.  Students learn on their own what will and won't sustain them in life, because life itself teaches them.  We parents don't always have to do the teaching, as much as we want to.  Attempting to do that, we actually interfere with natural consequences and learning, slowing down and disrupting the entire process of development.

So give them space and time to incubate the self.  Trust that the self will unfold in the way it should, one way or another.  Students, take the opportunity to learn about and become who you are.  Just as you have the freedom to do so, so do you have the responsibility to accept the feedback you will receive, and to adjust accordingly.