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Prep your child to become an adult

In his book “Ready or Not, Here Life Comes,” pediatrician and author Dr. Mel Levine addresses why some kids make a successful transition into adulthood while others do not. Here’s an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Most parents wonder if their child will be prepared to tackle adulthood when they grow up. Now, after decades of observing children grow into young adults, nationally known pediatrician and author Dr. Mel Levine addresses why some youngsters make a successful transition into adulthood while others do not in his book, “Ready or Not, Here Life Comes.” Here's an excerpt:

How Startup Adults Get Unready for Careers
I do not think I knew what to expect [in the transition from school to work]. I always worked during high school; I always worked and made money. My parents made sure I went to work, but at the same time I was spoiled rotten growing up, so I never really had an idea. It was harsh, a big change to leave the nest and get into the real world and have to take care of everything. I wasn't prepared for what things cost, the value of the dollar, the things you could and could not do.
S.R., age 27

Lives flow with heavy undercurrents, much like the open sea; they undulate through well-timed waves, such as the preschool period, adolescence, and the so-called golden years of late life. Each arriving era brings its special challenges and opportunities, along with its unique stresses and pressures. A person may or may not be equipped to ride the next wave, to manage the requirements — obvious and hidden — of his or her latest time of life.

A particularly challenging period is the opening stages of a life at work, the school-to-career years, a time that, although rarely thought of as distinct, may be one of the roughest to traverse. These are the startup years, a pivotal time that claims more than its share of unsuspecting victims. In fact, most people are better prepared for their retirement than they are for the startup of their working lives! For some the startup years commence at age sixteen or seventeen, upon their dropping out of high school. For others the startup may not begin until age twenty-nine, following a residency in plastic surgery.

Many individuals in and around their twenties come to feel abandoned and anguished. They start to question their own self-worth, and they are prone to some awful mistakes in their choice of career or in the ways they perform as novices on the job. They suffer from an affliction I call work-life unreadiness, which may have its onset right after high school, in college, during the job search, or during the early phases of a job or a career.

The length of the startup period varies from just a few years to a decade or more of uncertainty and justified anguish. Some emerging adults take longer to start up a stable work life than do others. Some never stop starting; they can't move ahead toward a career because of repeated false starts or because they keep changing course. They start up and stall out! Others feel stymied in their work choices, while some of their friends effortlessly and expediently move into job roles that fit them as snugly as their favorite athletic socks.

Clearly, work life is not one's only life! Family life, perhaps spiritual life, sex life, social life, along with assorted other slices of life operate in concert and sometimes in conflict with work life. But work life is the subject of “Ready or Not, Here Life Comes.” To a large extent, people are what they do. But we must remember that life at work is influenced by and influences numerous facets of day-to-day existence.

We are in the midst of an epidemic of work-life unreadiness because an alarming number of emerging adults are unable to find a good fit between their minds and their career directions. Like seabirds mired in an oil spill, these fledgling men and women are stuck, unable to take flight toward a suitable career. Some are crippled before they have a chance to beat their wings; others have tumbled downward in the early stages of their trajectories. Because they are not finding their way, they may feel as if they are going nowhere and have nowhere to go.

I have listened to the laments and noticed the moistened eyelids of promising young people who at age eighteen, twenty, twenty-one, or twenty-nine have no idea what they want to make of their work lives. Some may be too accustomed to having their activities explicitly spelled out and scheduled for them and as a result are having trouble making their own significant decisions. Others may have known what goals they wanted to pursue, but then their occupational pot of gold lost its allure; the romance of big business, engine repair, law, or academic life turned out not to be as advertised. Work was no fun; or it was repetitious ("boring"); or it entailed handling heaps of minutiae and menial tasks — grunt work. Maybe it called for far too much playing up to people these young adults did not particularly like or respect. As one person we interviewed put it, “I do not think you can be prepared for the transition. No one can tell you what it is like to get up at eight every day and go to work every day to scratch out a living so you can have forty-eight hours on the weekend to do what you like, when you've had twenty-one years of doing what you want!” Any earlier idealism has given way to disillusionment.

Some anxious junior staffers may have chosen their particular roads for all the wrong reasons. Some embarked upon a career odyssey without fully understanding what that journey was destined to be about. No one told them what dental school or dental practice truly entailed; or if it was explained to them, perhaps they were not ready to hear it. Other young adults find themselves bound to an occupation from which they'd like to bail out, but they feel chained to their entry positions. Perhaps the pay is good, or backtracking would be too hard and risky, or nothing else looks any better. Finally, there are those unqualified for the peculiar rigors and aches of their grown-up work. It may be that their current abilities have failed to match their present interests. You're in for some trouble if whatever you like to do most you do poorly. Some people have strengths they're not interested in exploiting and interests that bring out all their weaknesses.

In all these instances, years of schooling and parenting have entirely missed that elusive target, work-life readiness. Our graduates may well lack the practical skills, the habits, the behaviors, the real-world insights, and the frame of mind pivotal for career startup. Their parents and teachers have unwittingly let them down. Adulthood has ambushed them; its demands have taken them by surprise. Nevertheless, time won't stand still.

Their Earlier Lives
Individuals who find themselves gridlocked during the transition to adult work have come to these frustrating impasses from various directions. A lot of them were impressive students, pelted with ego-intoxicating kudos for displaying the dubious but much-revered trait of well-roundedness. These golden girls and boys — ultracool, in the adolescent sense of the word, academically successful, athletic, politically astute, and attractive — were apt to tumble from these pedestals. Their very versatility helped to make it hard for them to commit to the deep and narrow grooves of adult work life. Others suffered with neurodevelopmental dysfunctions that made school a perpetual come-from-behind battle, as they fought to satisfy elusive academic, athletic, or social demands. Many were well-behaved and compliant kids, able to meet expectations as long as the demands were explicitly framed. Some were industrious, while others did poorly in school and became accustomed to failure. Whether their earlier life histories were comfortable or difficult, these neophyte adults now feel dazed and understandably apprehensive.

Has this predicament always plagued the members of this age group? Or are we encountering a growing proportion of unhappy wanderers? No doubt, the transition to adult work life is one of life's most daunting periods. But I have a strong sense that our population of career-unready adults is expanding, and doing so at an alarming pace — like a contagious disease.

The Backdrop: Contemporary Influences on Work-Life Readiness
The culture of the modern world affords multiple ways to get lost or ambushed along the work-life trail. More than ever before, young adults are apt to confront job descriptions that are strikingly different from those familiar to elder members of their families. Role models within a family are an endangered species. Even if a young person breaks into the identical occupation as his mother or father, the chances are that its current routines and requirements look nothing like those his parents faced. Practicing medicine or law or tending to the family farm is a whole different ball game these days. Meanwhile, new adults have to face an economic world as unfathomable as it is unpredictable. How does a startup adult go about seeking job security amid today's foggy employment forecasts? Not very well.

We also live in a time when many mothers and fathers are downright fearful of their own kids, especially their adolescent offspring. Adolescents often hold the power in a family because they have so many weapons at their disposal (such as drugs, alcohol, tattoos, anorexia, suicidal thoughts, dropping out). Parents can't help dreading that their relationships with their kids may become increasingly brittle as children grow up. This fear may in part stem from a feeling of guilt that both parents are working and worry that they are not devoting sufficient attention to their children. Some parents may long so desperately for the approval of their children that they go out of their way to make sure their kids are being entertained at all times and sheltered from adversity or hardship of any sort. For example, if their child is having a hard time with a particular teacher, a parent is apt to call the principal or intervene in some other way and solve the messy problem for the child. Then the student is deprived of the opportunity to learn the strategic skills of conflict resolution, stress management, negotiation, and problem solving, all of which are essential in a career.

Many children and adolescents are not equipped with a durable work temperament, having been submerged in a culture that stresses instant rewards instead of patient, tenacious, sustained mental effort and the ability to delay gratification for the sake of eventual self-fulfillment. Additionally, work life may seem excessively arduous if children have been engorged with rapid-fire computer games, Instant Messaging, and formulaic TV shows suffused with canned laughter and predictable story lines that resolve themselves in an eye blink. In some cases, our society's obsession with sports may also limit a kid's capacity for brain work.

What if, throughout a child's formative life, he has shown precious little interest in the lives of adults? He has never been a student of adulthood. He has identified almost exclusively with other kids, his peers; the only grown-ups he has ever admired have been loud entertainers and oversized athletic idols. He may never have given much thought to later life or to any specific career track, and as a result, he's failed to identify with grown-up role models. I believe that the prevailing tendency in our age is for kids to model themselves mostly after their peers, and it may blind young adults when they need to read career road maps. Adolescence can be a hard act to terminate when a youngster has precious little insight into what ought to follow it. Many youngsters therefore are forced to be opportunistic; they will go for whatever line of work is available to them when they need work. They back into a career.

In their book “Quarterlife Crisis,” Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner make the observation, “The whirlwind of new responsibilities, new liberties, and new choices can be entirely overwhelming for someone who has just emerged from the shelter of twenty years of schooling.” Startup adults may be totally unprepared for some of the bracing realities of early work life listed below.

Bracing Realities
Startup adults may have trouble making a firm commitment to a single area of interest and a confining work setting when their lives have always offered them a steady flow of diverse attractions and distractions.

  • They need to start at the bottom of the work heap, which may be difficult after an ego-inflating senior year.
  • Their work involves more drudgery and a lot less fun than they had expected; there are more trivial and menial tasks than they had foreseen. They didn't think work would be so much work.
  • They no longer receive test scores and report cards, so it can be tough for them to gauge how well they are doing.
  • When the job market is tight, they feel dispensable.
  • Competition on the job may be camouflaged, but it bristles beneath a convivial surface. Professional jealousy may be rampant.
  • Their closest colleagues also may be their archrivals.
  • They may become victims of insidious (or even overt) discrimination on the job; it may be related to race, gender, ethnicity, bodily dimensions, or they may be treated unfairly simply because they are young.
  • The initial romantic sheen of their career choice may start wearing thin, and they doubt they want to stick with it for the long haul, but perhaps they're not sure what else they can or should do.
  • The actual on-the-job subject matter of the work they are doing is not what they had in mind.
  • They are ambivalent about the course they are now pursuing and wonder about all those things they could have done, the opportunities they may have passed up.
  • They feel that some people working above them are so smart and accomplished that they doubt if they will ever be like them.
  • Their success is less dependent on old standbys: athletic ability, coolness, good looks, rote memory, multiple-choice-test-taking skill, and spelling.
  • Expectations on the job are spelled out less explicitly than they were in school.
  • They are accustomed to rapid gratification; now they may not be seeing immediate results, the way they did on pop quizzes or during athletic events.
  • They have to be politically tuned in and astute — able to figure out how to impress the boss or supervisor without offending their coworkers.
  • They were banking on a long-assumed support system called institutional loyalty, and now they realize that the organization they have started working for has no loyalty to them. Life at the company will go on just fine if they quit!
  • They may have to cope with new feelings of being lonely, isolated, exploited, unloved, undervalued (perhaps underpaid), and bored.
  • They are pretty much on their own; their parents are relegated to the sidelines.
  • They feel unprepared; they lack skills that they now need urgently.

A Worldwide Epidemic
Work-life unreadiness can plague an entire society or even a global culture. Individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, or unhappily employed impose a heavy drain on our resources. They are susceptible to long-term underachievement. Every government would be well advised to address an epidemic of such unreadiness, gauging how it might affect its economy, its productivity, and its capacity to resolve perplexing national problems.

Early On, Then Later On
There are dramatic differences between the unwritten rules for growing up and those governing careers. For one thing, a child is encouraged to be well-rounded, while adults are permitted (even required) to commit to specialties. So long as grown-ups are effective within their chosen niches, the world will overlook or even fail to notice their gaping flaws elsewhere. Plans are prepackaged for a kid; expectations arrive in explicit proclamations and are as predictable as they are specific. Parental pressure and support are supposed to keep a child on track. The educational system is set up to teach skills in a rigid sequence to ensure that a child is sufficiently competent in all areas. Are such versatile children at risk? Will they have trouble switching over to a specialty mode? Some may.

A sizable hunk of a child's success is measured by her ability to comply, to learn what she is expected to learn, and to do what she's told to do. An adult must be able to chart her own road maps. The odyssey leading into adulthood can be a lonely and harsh voyage, especially if a startup adult is naive and uninformed, if he's never learned to be a mapmaker.

Through their years of formal education, students are constantly being prepared for whatever's coming next. First graders assemble the decoding skills they'll need for reading in second grade, while second graders are taught to be increasingly fluent readers so that they can access storybooks in third grade. High school students are primed to get into the best possible colleges or land lucrative jobs. Some institutions even call themselves "college prep schools." The term is most often a euphemism for "college admissions prep." Why not "life prep"? Don't we need to prepare our kids for the tough demands of adult life? I believe so. That's what this book is all about.

Young adults unprepared for their career startups are also not equipped to cope with their disappointment over who they are turning out to be and what they find themselves doing. They may even have to endure long-term maladjustment, emotional instability, spasms of depression, alcoholism, and abysmal self-esteem. Ultimately, their unreadiness to move up and out can thwart not just their effectiveness on the job but, as well, their ability to function as spouses and parents. A precarious, unfulfilling career startup easily undermines family and personal life.

Such pathetic outcomes are almost entirely avoidable. To fortify our kids so they can avert these spirals of failure, we will need to reexamine how we go about equipping them for adulthood.

Of a Mind to Prepare
Rearing and educating children involves establishing some long-range priorities. I believe there is at present a vast gulf between what is taught in school and what is essential to learn for a gratifying adult work life. We overemphasize a host of facts and skills that will be of little or no use in the workplace. Often such educational practice has been ingrained in schools for generations without being sufficiently reexamined for its present-day relevance. Multiple-choice tests do not prepare a child for anything important in the adult sphere. Making a child feel terrible because his scrawl is barely decipherable is callous and needless; many adequately successful adults (the author included) are hardly paragons of legibility. How accurately a child can spell, how thoroughly he conquers trigonometry, how precise he is at the game of memorizing and regurgitating historical facts, and how athletic he may be are irrelevant to almost any career you can name. On the other hand, the ability to think critically, to brainstorm, to monitor and refine your own performance, to communicate convincingly, and to plan and preview work are among the important skills that could make or break startup adults across countless occupations. We need to keep asking what we're programming kids for and whether or not our current educational priorities have enduring relevance. I am calling for a major reexamination of our priorities for education and parenting.

As I meet many startup adults, I find myself thinking a lot about the need for change. I have gotten to know them and their parents well, and in many cases, I have met their siblings. In two previous books, “A Mind at a Time” and “The Myth of Laziness,” I drew upon my experiences as a clinician to write about key functions and dysfunctions that impact a child's performance during his school years. From my direct work with children and adolescents as well as my opportunities to find out how they are turning out in their twenties, I have developed a framework for what I believe it takes to negotiate the daunting transition from adolescence into the startup years. Within this framework, I have identified twelve essential areas in which a young mind ought to grow to be ready to take on the demands of work life. I call these the growth processes, and as parents, as educators, as community leaders, and as clinicians, we are obliged to see that they are nurtured in all of our children.

Every parent and all educators want to believe they are preparing kids for the real world. But since that real world keeps changing, it should be obvious that teaching and parenting must keep pace and respond to new demands. But are teaching and parenting keeping pace? I don't think so. It is time to set in motion a system through which we can prevent the devastation of work-life unreadiness. Through a combined campaign conducted by parents and schools, we can meet this challenge.

The twelve vital growth processes that I have identified can be divided into four general areas, conveniently remembered as the four I's: inner direction, interpretation, instrumentation, and interaction. Each of these four areas contains three of the growth processes (as seen in table 1.1). In this book I will focus on how we can foster these processes in children aged eleven to twenty, although some readers may perceive implications for the teaching and rearing of even younger children.

An Overview Of the Growth Processes

A separate chapter of this book will be devoted to each of the four I's:

  • The cogent adage "Know thyself" deserves the spotlight when it comes to work-life readiness. Inner direction refers to an individual's insight into himself or herself. Often, unready startup adults harbor unrealistic or highly distorted senses of who they are and what they can do. They may have false perceptions of their strengths, weaknesses, and personal values. They may have never developed specific aims and aspirations, or they may have fallen short in sparking the self-motivation and drive needed to achieve their goals. One lofty challenge then for parents and teachers is to help kids know themselves, to teach them to become goal setters, and to show them how to reach short and long-term aims.
  • If inner direction enables children to understand themselves and where they are headed, interpretation, the second I, means getting to know the outside world, acquiring insights into the conditions in which young people live, and understanding the phenomena that surround them. School doesn't always provide for that. There are too many students who memorize their way through their classes without understanding what they are learning. We fail to teach kids how to understand. For example, young children often recite the Pledge of Allegiance without understanding a good portion of the vocabulary it contains. Students' comprehension needs to extend to ideas, issues, expectations, and processes. They need to become proficient at on-the-job learning, interpreting new knowledge and integrating what can be gathered from day-to-day experience. To learn from experience, they have to be good at interpreting that experience! Ultimately, accurate interpretation brings with it good judgment and decision making, along with the ability to evaluate critically opportunities, issues, products, and even people.
  • The third of the four I's refers to creating a working tool kit, the skills that foster high-quality thinking and productivity. These include the right kinds of organizational skills, the capacity to harness and allocate one's mental energy, brainstorming power, creativity, and the ability to make sound decisions in a systematic manner. It also takes in academic skills and their adaptation to meet challenging demands.
  • The final set of growth processes encompasses interpersonal skills. This includes the invaluable growth process of communication, which enables an individual to use words and construct sentences that convey personal thoughts accurately, convince others of a point of view, and cement relationships. Alliance formation is a second interaction growth process, fostering the cultivation and maintenance of solid work-life relationships. And finally, interaction includes sophisticated political behavior; that is, sensing or knowing what it will take to make the grade and win the approval of individuals who could have a significant influence on one's future success and happiness. These are the influential people, including those with whom or for whom you work, the power brokers who, whether you know it or not, ultimately will be casting ballots either for or against you.

No one achieves a perfect score when it comes to the growth processes; we all lag in some areas. But individuals who are significantly unready for a career startup are likely to be seriously deficient in several or else harbor a cluster of underdeveloped growth processes. Their growth may have been stunted somehow at some point. Or else the processes have never been germinated in the first place, perhaps as a result of a shortcoming in their own brain wiring or in their family or school experience.

Excerpted from “Ready or Not, Here Life Comes” by Mel Levine, M.D. Copyright © 2005 by Learning Ways, Inc. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.