When our sons were six, one of my running buddies and I packed up the canoes and the kids and headed out to the barrier islands conveniently located a hundred yards from the mainland out in Biscayne Bay. After tying the boats to the top of the car and loading the coolers--you've been to weddings with less food--we plied our first graders with tales of Gilligan's Island, our favorite sixties sitcom.
After explaining how the professor could build a radio out of sticks and mud but couldn't fix a hole in a boat, we went on to explain how the characters are in a one-to-one correspondence with the seven deadly sins. (The matchup between Gilligan, The Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, Maryann, and the Professor with gluttony, anger, greed, sloth, lust, envy and pride will be left as an exercise for the curious reader. Hint: Mrs. Howell never actually DID anything, did she?)
Our offspring were oddly silent while being exposed to their shared cultural legacy in the car ride across town. Finally one of the boys spoke up: "So they never got off the island?"
"No, son," my buddy explained. "In every episode Gilligan messed up the rescue somehow. The castaways were never rescued."
The boys went quiet again for a full moment and then said incredulously, "Dad, why didn't they just use their cell phones?"
I treasure this story not only because the children and I found sea urchins in the warm water by the island and we had sour pickles with our sandwiches, but also because it quantifies for me the differences between the generations: our children, natives to the land of technology and immigrants to the outdoors, are the reverse of their parents. I grew up swimming out to the islands off what is now David Kennedy Park in Coconut Grove. I waited until after 11:00 at night to make a long distance phone call. Readers my age will know that the rates went down at that hour; younger readers will see dial phones only in photographs or museums. In 1974, I called a girl at the University of Florida from my apartment in Madison, Wisconsin; I hope to finish repaying the loan I took out for that call sometime next year.*
This week I spoke to domestic clients in California, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire as well as international families in Switzerland, Spain, Columbia, El Salvador and two in Panama. My biggest issue with my student choosing and applying to colleges from Indonesia is the 12-hour time difference. Morning for me is evening for her so we don't match up as well as we might. These calls are effectively free, once the fixed costs of the computer or smart phone are taken into account.
Which brings me to my point about college admissions and parenting for 2015: choice is hard.
A century and a half ago, the brightest kid in your small town went to college out East; a few other kids went to the state university; lots of other kids didn't attend college at all. There was no social stigma. There was certainly less angst. Last month I had clients paralyzed by decisions: admitted to colleges all over the country, some students visited campuses for the second or third time.
I am not suggesting that life was easier 150 years ago. To the contrary, life was hard without antibiotics or anesthesia. Information was hard to come by; no idea could travel faster than the fastest horse. And effective medications were the stuff of science fiction--a genre that had also not yet been invented. Our children now have too much information. As I am not the first to remark, every book ever written, every song ever sung, every idea ever thought is available to every child with an Internet connection. (Read: every child whose parent is considering this essay.) Much of this information--violent pornography, for example--is impossible for children to process.
Gentle guidance? Fewer choices and only developmentally appropriate ones will help your kids grow up strong and centered. "Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?" for first graders. "Would you prefer to set the table or take out the trash?" for middle schoolers.
Even "Which movie would you like to watch?" can be a little intimidating and "Which college will you attend?" and "What do you want to do with the rest of your life?" can be downright threatening. In many instances, less is indeed more.
Of course, the best questions of all remain, "Do you want another sour pickle on your sandwich?" and "How many sea urchins have we found?"
* For the chronically irony impaired, no, the call only cost about $20.00. For around the same amount in those days, one could call the United States from a town in Europe. After waiting two or three hours in the local post office for the connection to be made.