August 19, 2013

How college kids adjust to non-nuclear life in cocooning times

This article from CollegeView seems pretty representative of how both students and parents think about the switch from life at home to college, especially their social adjustment.

BTW, isn't it striking how in-agreement kids and parents are these days? And not only that, but that they both agree the kid is going to have as little of an independent life as possible? You'd think that would provoke rebellion in the kid, but not anymore.

At any rate, the moving-off-to-college stage gives us even clearer insight into the nature of nuclear family dynamics in a period of such profound cocooning. I mean, you'd think the parents would do everything they could to keep their kids under the same roof as always, and the general public wouldn't get to see the parent-child relationship, unlike if it were more out in the open at college.

Then again, both parents and kids probably expect -- and want -- the kid to move back home after college, perhaps only for a few years, though perhaps until they're 30. So, going off to college is more like an extended summer camp. Sure, your little robot might possibly get re-programmed by peer influences, but they'll be back soon enough for de-re-programming. Plus you'll be supervising and micro-managing every hour of their day from afar via cell phone.

While they're there, though, how are kids supposed to adapt to a social environment lacking direct parental supervision, when that's all they've experienced growing up under helicopter parents?

Listen to how little social skills they assume when giving the following advice:

To help make adjusting to dorm life easier, we recommend contacting your new roommate(s) prior to leaving for your first semester. This will allow you to get to know each other before even meeting, and will also give you the chance to discover each other’s interests, likes, dislikes and more. By becoming acquainted with your roommate(s) prior to arrival, it will help you to understand what is important to this new person and provide for a more communal dorm life.

Uh, or the both of you could just show up and get to know each other in real life and in real time -- without months of planning and negotiating beforehand. But remember, these people have rarely or never interacted with their peers in an informal, equal setting where give-and-take is the norm. Lacking the ability to hit the ground running, socially, they have to Make Preparations.

I see meetings like this every now and again in Starbucks during the weeks leading up to the start of the school year. It didn't feel like how college kids used to strike up a conversation as part of the getting-to-know-you process. It's more like an interview, albeit a friendly two-way interview, between potential business partners. And meeting in a Starbucks totally makes it feel like a business meeting (albeit friendlier and lower-pressure).

The more transactional and contractual nature of their first interactions betrays the deep lack of trust among young people these days. They might as well communicate through their agents or representatives.

Once you arrive to college as a freshman, our advice is to also have a discussion with your roommate(s) in order to establish preferences. One such preference is whether or not your roommate(s) prefer to go to bed early or are night owls. Another recommended preference to establish is the level of noise which can be tolerated. It is important to create a level of comfort between you and your roommate(s), and by determining each other’s personal needs, you will be more likely to avoid conflicts and have an enjoyable college dorm life.

Why does any of that need to be spelled out at all? Didn't these kids internalize these basic truths over the course of years of sleepovers at their friends' houses? Nope, they rarely got to sleep over or host a sleepover, so they're wholly unfamiliar with having to compromise with another person in a sharing-the-room situation. And not only for sleep-related matters, but in general adapting your behavior to the norms of your host house -- how and when and what do you eat for breakfast, can you run indoors, etc.?

Since these ways have not become internalized, they need to be explicitly articulated by experts, and discussed overtly by the parties involved.

You'd be surprised how inflexible college kids are these days in living around or with others. But when your only experience has been getting your way and living with a single set of norms (that of your nuclear unit), you get irritated and bitchy when living with a stranger disrupts your routine. They're not doing it the right way!

The best way to meet new people during the early part of your dorm life is to get involved on campus. Participating in available campus programs provides an easy way to meet new faces and to see what college life is all about. Typically, most campuses will have kick-off activities for incoming students to take part in. You can also utilize your school’s web site as well as bulletin boards around campus to aid you in your search for appealing clubs and organizations.

Nothing wrong with joining clubs, but you should be comfortable meeting people outside of a more formal, organizational setting. That's my impression of who your friends are in high school these days -- they're the other kids with you in the computer programming club, on the cheerleader squad, on the soccer team, etc. It's more fragmented, with little interaction between the social islands.

You should be able to just attend a party, join a group on the main green area, or what have you, and make new contacts informally. There are only so many other people who are going to share your narrow range of interests and obsessions. After that, time to branch out.

Grown-ups had that too back in the good old days -- it was called the "dinner party" instead of a mere "party," but the function was the same. Or the night club, another great place to meet and mingle with new people. In the '80s, adults didn't need more formal social settings like the fraternal organizations of the mid-century because they were more comfortable socializing informally. (And the vast welfare state had removed most of the material / economic reasons for joining a fraternal organization back in the '50s.)

As with college kids, so with adults -- only so many others are going to share your interest in vintage cigarette case collecting, so you'll have to meet people in settings that draw from your peer group or generation in general. The death of night life is a sad consequence of the cocooning drive.

But back to social life at college:

Your resident assistant will help to create a great community, and by simply leaving your door open and participating in hall programs, you will be able to make friends quickly during your college dorm life.

Another strong impression I have is of the R.A. these days acting as a more active force, a surrogate "play date" supervisor for their wards, rather than just someone you occasionally turn to when you don't know what to do and they have been there, done that.

Again, when all these kids have known is one form of play date or another, it would be too radical of a change to just let them run their own social lives. So the R.A. has become more of a camp counselor for still-developing children, whereas even 10-15 years ago they were more like hands-off guidance counselors who had their own life.

Leaving the door open... it's so weird how quickly this has changed from when I was a freshman in the fall of 1999. Judging from what I've seen around college dorms, and of the undergrad Millennials I've been housemates with over the years, it seems like leaving the door open is no longer an invitation to come in and interrupt me, since I'm not doing anything important. It's no longer a notice that I'm available and up for whatever.

Now, even though the kid has their door open, they're glued as always to one of their various devices -- TV, video games, internet, or texting. Those are activities that you tend to get sucked into for awhile, and find it hard to unplug once you start. You get caught on a treadmill. So if someone thought to enter your room, they wouldn't really feel invited -- there you are, ignoring them while you scroll through texts, keep checking Facebook for new comments / likes / etc., level up your video game character, or whatever else.

Have you tried having a real interaction face-to-face, in real life with a Millennial? Or have you at least seen them in a public place like a coffee shop, where they're closed off from the outside world by their laptop, phone, headphones, and maybe sunglasses (indoors) for good measure? They have the same always-distracted behavior even when there's a group of friends together in one of their rooms. They wait politely for the main offender to get off their laptop, but until then they might as well check their own Facebook on their phone, and the group stays locked in digital distraction.

So what's the point of leaving the door open, then? It's like they're pretending to be social. They want others to think of them as well adjusted, without having to actually "put out" socially. They're attention whores. Look at me through my open door, but don't plan on me being up for anything -- not gonna lie, I'm actually kind of busy right now. Busy "accomplishing nothing," as they'd say. Kids are such loathsome posers today, trying to front about being busy, busy, busy, when they have no social life, no job, and no commitment to schoolwork.

Like, if your answer to everyone is going to be, "I'm kind of busy now" or "I don't know..." -- then might as well keep your door closed. But, that would prevent the visual (only) recognition that they seek, so it has to stay open. Everyone's trying to appear as conspicuously unavailable as possible.

It really was not like that when I was in college. Sure, things weren't as free-flowing as they were in the '80s. (And I do remember that, even though I was in elementary school, because my babysitter once took me and my brothers to a dorm at Ohio State at night, when everybody had their doors open and were pouring in and out of each other's rooms, playing music, smoking and drinking in the common areas, and generally not minding the boundaries.)

Still, we were pretty restless when we got to college, and at least wanted to take part in a good old bull session, and preferably to Go Somewhere. Only one guy in the whole dorm had brought a TV, and no one had a video game system either. We did have desktop computers with internet access, but we would only surf the web to kill time until someone showed up, or until we got bored and left in search of something to do at a campus hang-out spot. If the door was open, and you found someone on the internet, they would totally look up in relief and hear your pitch for what to do, or get lost in a conversation if you just wanted to shoot the bull.

They would not ignore you while they managed four different IM conversations (that period's version of texting). The only thing I recall occasionally getting in the way was the computer game Snood and the file-sharing program Napster. Those things seemed to demand more attention and distract your would-be activity or conversation partner. But they weren't a problem for most people, most of the time.

It's rare in 2013 to see kids with the door open while they're sitting or laying down reading a book or magazine. Those are easy to interrupt. Unless you're deeply engrossed in a book (in which case you'd probably have the door shut), it's surprisingly effortless to lift your eyes away from the page, unlike unplugging them from a screen.

Sitting around listening to music -- another activity that's gone up in a puff of smoke. And one that was easy to walk in on.

I even remember some people taking a nap or resting with the door open. Like if they didn't really need the sleep, and just wanted to doze off a little until something fun presented itself, why not sack out on the bed or couch for a little while? "Knock knock... Uh, are you taking a nap?" "Nah, not really. You wanna go hit the dining hall?" "Yeah, just came to see if you were ready." "I'm ready, just resting my eyes. Gimme a second and we'll go."

Although we were advertising our availability by keeping the door open (rather than posing like today), I still wonder if that wasn't a sign of the first move toward cocooning on campus. Seems like we probably spent more time in our dorm rooms than we should have -- even if we made up for it somewhat by inviting others to interrupt us. If you're just waiting for a little while, then no big deal. But if the entire hall is sitting in their rooms with their doors open for hours and hours, then it hardly leads to socializing. It's more hive-like.

Just think if you spent most of your time at classes, eating / drinking, and otherwise being out-and-about, you wouldn't be spending so much time in your dorm room, door open or not.

Somebody who went to college in the '70s or '80s, please chime in about how common it was to hang out in your room with the door open.

Back to adjusting to your roommate:

It is also a good idea to contact your roommate(s) to clarify which items he or she will be contributing to the room. This will help to avoid bringing duplicate items as well as verify which items you will have access to during your college dorm life.

Not only did me and my freshman roommate not get to know each other before we showed up, we didn't contact each other to clarify who would be bringing what stuff. If neither of us brought a fan, I guess we'll take a trip to the Salvation Army and go halves. If we both brought a broom, well I guess one will remain unused in the closet or storage. How hard is this to figure out on the spot?

Again the relationship is so contractual. OK, so you'll be bringing A, B, and C, and I'll be bringing X, Y, and Z -- deal? I'll bet that on the rare occasions when these kids went to a sleepover or a summer camp, it was like that too, whereas we never had to make a checklist when we slept over at our friends' houses.

On their list of items to make sure you bring, they have a compact fridge and microwave. This is part the more hardcore level of cocooning these days, since nobody had those things when I was at college. We had a standard fridge and microwave (and stove top, I think) in the communal kitchen areas, about one per hallway.

Now kids and parents alike don't want the children to wander into an unsupervised common space, so why not play it safe (and pay big bucks) by giving each one their own fridge and microwave for their room. That will also dissuade them from wanting to go eat in the communal dining hall, where there would be too many potential peer influences and excitement. The more appealing you can make their room, the less they'll ever want to leave it, a theme I covered in an earlier post about today's obligatory dorm room makeovers.

And notice the list does not include first aid. I can't believe how much junk people hoard these days, yet do not have basics like hydrogen peroxide, or rubbing alcohol, and band-aids.

Finally, under the heading of Dorm Life Safety:

Share your schedule—Be sure to share your class/activities schedule with your family and friends to create a type of “buddy system” and allow your peers to be aware of your intended whereabouts.

Yeah, so your helicopter parents know when they can begin the daily barrage of "where are you?" "where are you going?" "who's going to be there?" "why didn't you respond when I called earlier?" "respond in 5 minutes or you're getting cut off," etc. I'm not sure how widespread this "buddy system" thing is, but definitely nobody did that when I was in college.

Do grown-ups publish their daily schedules, down to 15-minute blocks, to their family and friends? No, because it would be paranoid on their part, and disrespectfully paternalistic for anyone else to suggest that they do. "Buddy system" -- like college kids are four years old. Then again, when they've grown up so socially isolated, and thereby wind up stunted / retarded in young adulthood, parents start to worry about things like this.

They don't feel the pangs of guilt, like "Shit, I really messed up my kid's social skills and independence by sheltering them their whole life up till now. And now they can't get through the day without making a buddy system of their whereabouts... But, meh, sucks to be in my kid's generation, I guess. Glad it's not me. They'll end up all right somehow."

Taking in all the pieces, I'd say that parents and kids are treating the stay at college more like an extended, off-and-on summer camp. They could have let their kids play with their peers and slept under the same roof, learning social adaptability, when they were little -- but then kids can't grow up too early, like they used to when we were young.

Yet somehow we turned out OK, while our kids are awkward and inept... must be some kind of mysterious societal change, something we don't have any control over. And now back to hounding my kid about why they didn't respond when I texted them 10 times this afternoon.


  1. "You should be able to just attend a party"

    But you're not able to. The parties were all small and designed to keep out anyone not part of the small group of friends. This goes to show you that even those who may have been naturally friendly still managed to be crushed by the zeitgeist.

    Anyway, I have hope that many of the younger generation will get better once the zeitgeist improves(which it seems to be in the process of doing).

  2. Some colleges have very limited communal kitchen space. I attended an old school with old dorms. A few uninviting communal kitchen spaces had been added in the basements of the domrs as an afterthought, but that was it. We were all required to purchase a cafeteria food plan, and many of us rented mini-refrigerators. I'm not a millennial, actually a few years older than the bloghost.

  3. Once again, I would emphasize that even those trying to be social are getting screwed over because of the lack of trust.


  4. Yeah, but it's just one of those dues you have to pay for the eventual benefit of convincing people that it's OK to go out in public again.

    I know you said you're close to your family, but you are in one of the worst areas of the country, as far as trust and sociability goes.

    Not too late to move out to Vegas or Phoenix. Housing prices can't be too bad given how over-built it is.

  5. How'd you keep beer cold without a mini-fridge?


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