Monday, June 20, 2011

What to do About "Boomerang" College Graduates?

Summer has traditionally been a time of pride and optimism for new college graduates and their parents. But these days, when college seems less like a gateway to a bright and lucrative future and more like a temporary break from living at home, graduation can be a somewhat anticlimactic experience.

Even amidst signs that the job market for recent grads is improving, unemployment for people in their early 20’s still stands at almost 15%. Faced with such discouraging prospects, as many as 80% of this year’s graduates will be moving back home. Not only will this increased burden almost certainly hurt their parents’ retirement plans, it can also lead to vexing delays in the normal maturation process that 20-somethings go through as they learn to take care of and be responsible for themselves. Parents are often frustrated to find that the supposed grown-ups who come back are not too different from the entitled teenagers that they sent off to college.

These “boomerang kids” might seem to be the ultimate vindication for those who would proudly call themselves Tiger Moms. After all, the very reason that Tiger Moms are harsh disciplinarians, don’t allow a lot of freedom or choice, and relentlessly push for academic excellence is so that their children will have secure futures, and ultimately, happy ones. But upon graduation, many of these “Paper Tigers” run into limits of a different sort. Having grown accustomed to a lifelong paradigm where good grades automatically translate to success, these kids often find themselves entering unrewarding careers and resenting their scant prospects of advancement. They and their Tiger Moms realize too late that the endless drilling of rote knowledge was no replacement for being taught how to be creative, proactive, and ambitious.

In my new book Our Entitled Children: An American Tiger Mom’s Story, I introduce the concept of the American Tiger Mom to describe a mom who emphasizes the instilling of these traits, along with independence and personal responsibility, within her children. The American Tiger Mom is more than just a sensible compromise between the ferocious Tiger Mom and the indulgent, permissive Helicopter Mom. She is a mom whose one simple, overarching goal is to endow her children with the skills and knowledge to go off into the world at age 18 and experience a future with no limits.

In my experience, the single most effective way to work toward that goal is to encourage your teenager to do an original Project outside the classroom. A Project can take many forms, as long as it reflects your teen’s passions and aspirations; my own daughters’ Projects involved building a hydrogen fuel cell and starting a nonprofit for alternative fuels. Not only did Projects help them get into their dream schools of Stanford and Claremont McKenna, as well as obtain 80% of the scholarships they applied for, it also gave them a wealth of insight into what careers they were best suited for. If every young adult gained that kind of insight, it would eliminate a lot of the doubt and indecision that normally comes with life in and after college. They would have the skills and knowledge to take control of their lives after graduation, saving themselves a lot of time, and their parents a lot of money.

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