Directionless young adults need patience

February 20, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

MEL LEVINE has been a pediatrician for more than 30 years, and in that time he has watched some of his toddlers take their first, unsteady steps into adulthood.

Not only are these children remarkably unprepared to be grown-ups, he has concluded, but their parents and teachers have actually made it more difficult.

In his new book Ready or Not, Here Life Comes (Simon & Schuster, $26), he paints a picture of these unfocused, unsettled and ill-equipped twentysomethings wandering aimlessly on the employment landscape.

"These kids have no idea how to assess their strengths and weaknesses, how to follow their passion and how to communicate and work with others and how to survive on the bottom rung," he writes.

And he blames parents and teachers, who are so busy with college prep that they ignore life prep.

It isn't just that our children leave the nest without learning how to balance a checkbook, make a decent meal or do their own laundry, although there is certainly plenty of that.

"They have never worked on finding a good fit between their minds and their jobs," Levine writes.

The things that stood them well in high school -- athleticism, good looks, the ability to do well on a multiple-choice test -- mean nothing in the workplace, where there are no test scores, no report cards and where the expectations are rarely spelled out.

In addition, these children -- sheltered, diverted and never given responsibility by their parents -- are dismayed to find that their jobs are not "fun" and do not pay enough to keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed.

Levine, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School at Chapel Hill, spends much of the book discussing how teachers and parents can prepare children for adulthood.

Among his most interesting suggestions is that we expose our children, more often and more thoroughly, to adults: friends, neighbors and relatives, as well as shop owners and other professionals in the community.

Only that way can our children learn what it is adults do for work, and how they live.

"Each adult can serve as a short textbook chapter for a kid," he writes.

And he gives young people a four-step approach to discovering what it is they do best and how to be successful doing it:

Know yourself, your strengths and your aspirations; understand the world and how it operates and what it expects of you; develop the skills adults need, such as organizing and decision-making; and learn to communicate with others, build alliances and get things done.

But what about the parents of the already 20-something who is confused and defeated and who has, perhaps, returned home to live?

"Parents cannot waver in their displays of respect for their kid -- no matter how they see things going for him," Levine writes. "Being a serious disappointment to your mother or father is a wound that's slow to heal."

This transition into adulthood can be as confusing and disappointing for the parents as it is for their child. Parents, after all, have nurtured daydreams of their children's happiness and success since infancy.

What's a parent to do, he asks, when the future surgeon is completely happy being a busboy?

"So it is that parents of work-life-unready young adults have no choice but to be heroically and perhaps also stoically patient, respectful and tolerant," he writes.

The tricky part may be deciding how much support to provide your precious little drifter. Levine sees nothing wrong with room and board, but he says too much financial assistance can foster resentment on both sides.

He also says that parents have to walk a fine line between respecting the independence and privacy of their young adult, and making themselves available as a sounding board and consultant.

Levine says of our twentysomethings, "Adulthood has ambushed them; its demands have taken them by surprise. Nevertheless, time won't stand still: ready or not, here life comes."

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