The Summer in between

For new high school graduates and their parents, the months before college can be tense

May 28, 2006|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

In the dazzling trajectory that is Brittany Coombs' life, no glaring barriers separate her aspirations from those of her parents for their only child.

Wanda Williams and Ronald Coombs are exceptionally proud of Brittany's intellect and achievements. She is a gifted writer, guitarist, badminton competitor and chess player who is bound for her dream school, Dartmouth College, this fall.

After graduating from Western High School this week, Coombs, 17, plans to obtain a driver's license, take French lessons and find a summer job, preferably in a bookstore or library.

It all sounds so calm and sensible. And yet at times, the air in Coombs' Woodlawn home crackles inexplicably with tension.

It may come during a family discussion when Coombs, confident in her emerging maturity, disagrees with her parents. "I may have a comeback for their point of view," Coombs says. "I'm not talking back. I'm just trying to reason. My parents still think I'm talking back."

Coombs speaks for millions of college-bound peers when she says, "It seems like we're subversive without even trying to be."

For the class of 2006, transition summer has arrived. It is a time when high school graduates are poised between childhood and young adulthood. For a few fleeting months, they must navigate the blurred boundaries between the two hoods.

Cranky or rebellious during the day, a late adolescent may suddenly startle elders by lingering to chat long after a family dinner concludes.

The same child who expects custom-made lunches and clean T-shirts wants to borrow the car and party at the house of some guy named Chip whom the parents have never met -- or spend the week after graduation with buddies in Ocean City.

Soon, those kids will be on their own at college. In the interim, does that mean they don't need curfews, or warnings about alcohol, drugs, sex and impulsive road trips? To what extent can a caregiver control those scary variables at this point in a child's life? And to what extent can or should an adolescent call the shots?

"Everything depends on how much independence and autonomy your child has had up to this point," says Patricia Pasick, an Ann Arbor family therapist and author of Almost Grown: Launching Your Child from High School to College. "Some children have spent whole summers away. Others have only had weekends or spring breaks away. Everything depends on that and temperament and what goes on in the family."

That said, Pasick sees a "broad swath of similarities among high school girls and guys as they head to college." This "is a major transition [that] signals the change and shift of responsibilities from parents and family members to the student."

When Coombs decided to attend Dartmouth instead of Johns Hopkins University, where she would have received free tuition, she was forced to take a giant leap into adulthood. One morning, "My mom woke me up with, 'I know how much you like it, but if you don't make the difference up, you'll go to Johns Hopkins.' I had to buckle down."

Coombs applied for 10 scholarships to meet her remaining tuition costs at Dartmouth. The awards may not cover the entire difference, but it was the effort, itself, that proved, "I'm ready to go to a good college out of state," Coombs says. Maturity is not measured by "how much you succeed, but by how much you try to succeed," she says.

With Coombs' growing self-reliance comes more independence. "Slowly, I'm backing off," Wanda Williams says. "I started that process not quite a year ago, letting [Brittany] make her own decisions. She made a few bad decisions, but even from bad decisions she has learned," she says. "I will always be there for Brittany. It's time for her to spread her wings."

"Parents at this juncture can feel unsure of where they stand," write Laura S. Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt in The Launching Years. "There are moments when they're parenting actively, moments when they feel left out of parenting, and moments of wonderful camaraderie with their children. It's the beginning of the mixed parenting of the college years."

Hard to let go

As they make their break, high school graduates may find that their parents are reluctant to let them go. Western graduate Ruby Pratka, who will attend Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, wants to travel to an ice skating tournament on her own in Massachusetts this summer.

But her father insisted that she not go alone, says Pratka, 17. "It's a little bit frustrating," she says. "The trip is July 26 and by Sept. 26 I won't be living at home any more. I don't see how it matters."

Frank Pratka, Ruby's father, doesn't see a contradiction. The tournament in Marlborough is difficult to reach, he says. "She's probably a lot more ready than I probably give her credit for, for college. But she's not ready to go to Boston and figure out how to go to Marlborough."

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