The first time I heard the verb “launch” referring to child rearing, it seemed to me to be a very odd choice of words. My very fertile imagination saw parents firmly attaching their offspring to a rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The countdown begins, the great plumes of smoke leave the rocket’s base and obscure the view. Then, off goes this child, into the great unknown universe. That’s when I realized that it was actually a pretty apt comparison.
I grew up at a time when NASA was a rock star. The nation watched as the impossible was happening. Man was going into outer space. Then, in 1969 he went to the moon and it was all we talked about for weeks. Before the take-off, we were privy to all the meticulous testing and retesting of equipment. We, the public lay people, were made aware of all the preparation and years of training it took to get to this moment. We watched as astronauts were put into space suits and spent serious amounts of time in simulators, learning how to deal with zero gravity and other strange phenomenon they would meet up with when they experienced “the real thing”. The point was made abundantly clear- you didn’t just decide to launch a rocket into space. It takes years of preparation.
People who take their task as parents seriously realize the same about parenting, but they often miss some important points. To be successfully “launched”, a young adult needs to be a lot more than polite, thoughtful and honest. To list and discuss all the traits needed for a successful entrance into the “real world” would far exceed the parameters of this article. However, there are a number of abilities that really need to be part of a young person’s repertoire as s/he heads out to build a life. In all these, parents and other adults in the life of the child need to have served and continue to serve, as both role models and coaches.
- Stick-to-it-ivness: By the time one is preparing to no longer be living with parents and is looking for a job or is already employed, s/he needs to have a good sense of self and match this with how s/he makes purposeful choices that will stick. Of course there is the goal of steadily climbing upward on the job ladder, but without staying the course in the lesser job, chances are that upward mobility will simply not be feasible. This is grown up time which means that you don’t head for the exit whenever something does not please you, or is hard, or takes too much effort. If, while one was growing up, s/he was allowed to quit at every uncomfortable blip in the road, this will be a difficult response behavior to conquer, but no successful launch can take place without it.
The easy way out can be a successful strategy in grade school. After that, it becomes a character flaw.
- The Ability to Plan: As children, it is usually Mom who arranges play dates. If a promised activity is threatened with postponement by a dentist appointment it is also usually Mom who figures out a way to rescue the situation. Ditto for trips to the beach and visits to Granny. You can count on her, and often Dad, to remember to pack much needed items whose absence would severely sour an otherwise joyous experience. This ability to plan both time and space is vital in much human interaction. It makes daily living and successful professional outcomes possible.
So, learning to master these time/space puzzles and dilemmas is a vital part of what a parent must make sure his offspring master. By adolescence, it is not a bad idea to let your child, and not you, take care of all details which pertain to his/her trip, after school job or activity. You can be consulted as needed, but don’t take over the planning. You really will not be doing your child a favor.
- Goals and Aspirations: One cannot venture out into the world without a plan. It need not be very detailed, but it needs to serve as a compass. It needs to guide. It needs to excite. It also needs to be realistic. And, by the time of launching, it should be something that has been looked into and discussed quite a bit already.
Too many teens have been told what their aspirations should be. That is about the best way to squelch them. Encourage children and teens to do what they love. Cheer them on even if you would like them to be interested in something else. Once they are doing what they love, children/teens are ready to learn things like the importance of practice, the need to finish the job and the joy of succeeding as a result your own sweat. No shortcuts.
- Self-Reliance: To my mind, this is the trait that is the best predictor of successful adulthood. To know that you can take care of yourself and your needs and not need to count on others who may not come through for you, is really another form of freedom. Yet, parents (particularly mothers) seem particularly set on sabotaging this strength in their children. The opposite of self-reliance is dependence. It often takes the unseemly form of “learned helplessness” which is a product of some pretty fancy psychological maneuvering. When a child is told, “Don’t bother doing that, it is easier for me to do it myself than explain to you how,” the child is let off the hook. The Mom does not have to figure out how to explain it, she saves time and she can save her child from having to work at something, which gets her points. After a while, not doing new or difficult things is what the child expects from life. S/he is then left really not being able to do for him/her self and eventually feels like a failure. We all know such adults and they are never popular.
- Responsibility/Accountability: Ask any employer what the most important thing s/he expects of an employee besides loyalty and these two traits are always on the top of the list. The same can be said of a spouse after the honeymoon is over. To be able rely on a parent (to protect us, to keep a promise) is a good predictor of a child’s ability to trust. A good friend is also someone you know you can count on. So, it would seem that somewhere on the road to adulthood, a person needs to learn (preferably by example) that others need to be able to see him as a player, as being about more than just himself. This is usually very hard work, especially when one is young. It takes years of practice and coaching. These are two traits that make a person sought after in all areas of human relationship. Moreover, a responsible person who takes accountability seriously, will also be able and willing to admit mistakes. And in the world of social interaction, that is priceless.
Making sure your child is capable in the above areas requires continuous involvement that needs adjustment as the child matures. It means that even if your child is getting decent grades and is hanging out with good kids your job is still not done. Bummer. As any serious gardener will tell you, if you want plants to thrive, it requires more than water and proper exposure. The extra care will yield far superior beauty and growth.