Who doesn’t send off children anywhere without a pit in their stomachs? Whether it’s college, summer camp, or kindergarten? Is it really going to happen? Have we done all we could to prepare them for leaving the nest? Are they well equipped and knowledgeable about the challenges they will encounter? These concerns are legit.
Now it’s that time of year again when parents across the country will be sending their precious children off to their freshman year of college. And there are new concerns. I remember sending my each of my five sons off to a university years ago – concerned about tuition and room/board funding issues. Fretting about no longer being in control and in charge. Obsessing about if the college they ultimately chose was the “right” one. Fearing they would be lost in the wave of other entering freshman and neglected and overlooked.
Amidst my reminiscing, I began reading the book Irena’s Children, the story of a courageous woman during World War 2, smuggling thousands of children trapped in the Warsaw ghetto past the Nazis – to safe houses, orphanages and convents.
On the eve of my sons leaving home for college, I worried incessantly that the meal plans offered through the dorms were carb-laden and unhealthy. And that my children would pack on the dreaded “freshman fifteen.” Parents of children in the Warsaw ghetto worried over food too, but didn’t have the luxury of worrying about excessive carbs and healthy food choices. Official rations allotted to Jews in the walled-off area were 184 calories per day per person. If lucky and/or wealthy, food was available through the black market at exorbitant prices. And great risk.
Would my kiddies be safe on campus? Get a bid to the fraternity of their choice? Survive Hell Week? In the spring of 1942, 2000 Jewish children had begun living separately from their parents too – but not by choice. They too had new living arrangements and new challenges. Alone on the streets of the Aryan side of Warsaw, young Jewish men hiding outside the ghetto were in constant danger. Thugs and black mailers sadistically and randomly stopped young teenage boys and ordered them to reveal their penises for inspection. Circumcision was an instant death sentence. They had no “choices.” Every day was “Hell Week” for them.
A high school guidance counselor once told me acceptance to college called for a parent’s quick trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond for quilts, bedding sets and extra shelving. And to the Apple Store for a laptop computer, I Pad and I Phone – all of which parents hoped their kids would utilize fully to keep in touch. Parents who made the agonizing decision to have their children smuggled out of the ghetto had no time to prepare their children for the rigors they would face. Their last parting message to their kids was not to keep in touch – that was far too dangerous. The most common parting message from parents to children before turning them over to Irena and her cohorts was to urgently remind them “to wear the best disguise of all: happy faces.” Their goal for their sons and daughters was not a diploma, but survival and to somehow be reunited with their families when the nightmare ended. Few were.
Parents routinely ask college campus student affair administrators if their children will be safe walking home from the library late at night. What about the dangerous risks of binge drinking? Depression? Date-rape? Families who gave Irena Sendler their children only asked one question: What guarantee can you give us of our child’s safety? Irena’s answer: “I can promise you nothing, but that I will risk my life today trying.” Babies were tranquilized and stored in toolboxes under bricks in flatbed trucks leaving the ghetto, bound for a “safe” house. Older children were re-clothed and instructed to completely shed their past and internalize the information on the falsified documents they were handed.
I always worried that my kids, who had always approached studying and homework with underwhelming rigor, would feel overwhelmed their first semester at a university. My husband felt they could handle a full and demanding 17-18 hour course load. I argued for less, to spare them undue stress and ease their fears of “flunking out.” Parents living in the ghetto hoped to spare their kids stress too – only their stress was based on keeping their children from selections that led to deportation on trains headed for the death camps. Wealthy families who had managed to smuggle money with them paid as high as $15,000 per work permit for older children – who then had the “privilege” of toiling 17-18 hours per DAY in hard labor.
Of course, the Jews in the ghetto didn’t have to worry if their kids had the “right” wardrobe essentials for their leave taking: sports jerseys and caps with university logo, towel wraps, snow boots, backpack, texting gloves, fleece vests. Jews in the ghetto wore patched, ragged clothing with the Star of David for identification. No option dressing. Authorities warned that severe punishment – up to and including death by shooting – was in store for Jews who did not conform and wear the badge.
So even with keeping things “in perspective,” what can we do when:
- Calls come about difficult roommates?
- Calls come about a disappointingly low test grade?
- Calls come about a run-in with a professor?
- Calls come about a disappointing social-life?
What three actions can modern parents take to help their kids successfully thrive when away from the nest?
We can act as our child’s coach, not rescuer. We can encourage them to take charge of their own experience – to seek out ways to solve their own problems using the resources available.
We can praise them for their efforts to make the best of their situation and work to the best of their ability.
Yes, there are great perils “out there” now in 2017. And equipping our children to cope with our 21st Century reality is essential. But let’s keep in mind how lucky we are to have these concerns and not the ones the parents in the Warsaw ghetto faced during Hitler’s relentless reign of terror. Let’s hold sacred our good fortune.