The time between the ages of 16 and 25 can be a period of fast-tracked emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth for many young people. They may look like fully capable adults, but their cognitive reasoning skills are still very much tied to the outside world, especially to parents and educational environments. 

Just like anyone, young people in this age group can make mistakes and they can get hurt. As parents, it’s hard for us to sit back and let that happen, no matter how big or small those mistakes might be.

A university shouldn’t have that problem, though. These institutions are supposedly preparing our teens to lead successful adult lives. Instead, they infantilize students more than most parents, encouraging an attitude of helplessness and fear instead of strength and independence.

It’s Easy for Parents to Infantilize Their Kids

Parents often infantilize their children by telling them they have choices, then subverting those choices when children try to exercise them. “You can choose any toy you want at the store. Oh, except the one you just pointed at, that one’s too noisy.”

There are right times and wrong times in a child’s development to be a watchful and cautious parent. It’s during the teen years that these efforts often come across as infantilizing, leading to terms like helicopter dad, tiger mom, and snowplow parents.

For me, as a single parent of three, it was critical to our survival as a family that I provided guidance and safe spaces for my kids to become as self-aware and self-reliant as possible. I quickly learned there was no one-size-fits-all method for doing this. 

Every person has a unique learning language, including our own kids. I had to tailor my approach to each child in order to provide instruction without needlessly infantilizing them.

How Universities Promote Infantilization

Children receive instruction from outside the family, too. The most common sources are daycares and schools. We expect a certain amount of this external instruction when our kids are younger, but by the time they’re old enough to go to university, parents know we have to start cutting the cord.

Unfortunately, it seems universities haven’t gotten this message. They continue to teach obedience and avoidance of adversity instead of promoting strength and autonomy. Not only is that counter to what parents try to do with their children, it’s also harmful to students themselves.

Schools systematically infantilize students by monitoring and controlling their every waking moment. Denying them the ability to set their own schedules or form their own study plans is only the beginning.

Many schools force students to surrender their cell phones at the start of class, yet teachers are free to use their devices all day. Some even require students to ask permission to use the restroom, denying them control over their own bodily functions.

One of my children struggled with not being allowed to leave her desk without permission from the teacher. A simple request to get her jacket felt like a ridiculous restriction to her, especially since she was raised at home to be more autonomous in accomplishing simple tasks.

It’s through situations like these that universities preach empowerment and human rights while simultaneously denying the same to their students. This is perhaps the result of overcrowded schools or overworked teachers, but the damage is still being done to our young people’s sense of independence.

Kids and Teens Can Be Capable, If We Let Them

As a single parent of three children, I had to prepare myself early on for the arrival of teenage rebellion. This was going to be different from the terrible twos rebellion. I would be dealing with complex young adults, each with different styles for receiving, processing, and delivering information.

I found success using the most direct method I could think of: actions create consequences. By working with my teens and showing them the ins and outs of cause and effect in the real world, I realized I could curb a fair amount of rebellion before it started.

I encouraged my kids early on to be self-aware and self-sufficient in as many ways as possible. This presented problems when they went through the public school system. The environment there promotes a herd mentality, which was precisely the opposite of what I was teaching.

To offset this, I encouraged my kids to be accountable at home and let them know that this attitude should continue everywhere in the world, including at school. It’s this sapling level of self-sufficiency that I think had the most impact on my kids, both when they were young and as they grew up.

Thoughtfulness, autonomy, and a good understanding of how the world works, it all adds up to a stronger young adult, even when they’re faced with the infantilizing environment of universities.

Encouraging Individuation

Our job as parents seems pretty clear: support our kids, give them the tools they need to be self-sufficient, and be mindful of infantilizing them as they grow older. Our job isn’t to protect them from adversity, it’s to give them the tools they need to face it and grow from it.

Universities should also encourage this attitude. After all, that’s what we want from adults, right? Strong and thoughtful and autonomous. Heroic, even. Teens can handle this if we give them the chance, but right now, the second most abundant influence in a young adult’s life — their time spent at school — actively tries to destroy individuation.

We need to start lessons in autonomy young, long before our kids consider going to university. It’s only natural that teens and young adults will often lack impulse control. They may say or do things and don’t grasp the ramifications immediately. They may lack the ability to see the end game in their words or actions. But that’s ok. It’s part of the learning process.

As a parent or educator, it’s important to remember not to swoop in and rescue, deflect, or deny this behavior, but to model appropriate behavior and guide young adults with respect. Eventually, they’ll be flying on their own. 

If we teach our children how to behave, then let them practice, eventually they will manage life’s ups and downs. Create controlled environments at home where kids can voice their opinions and engage in responsible behaviors. Once these habits are in place, encourage them to practice their independence outside of the home, with friends, and at school. More importantly, provide open channels for communication and offer feedback as necessary.

Ultimately, it’s far more advantageous to find that balance between treating kids like adults and helping them reach that level of maturity than it is to keep them oppressed.

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.

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