Colleges as launching pads to adulthood

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Article Highlights

  • Children in #Western societies transition to #adulthood by spreading dependency from #parents to #friends

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  • Japan suppresses youth culture which creates high grades, but also creates hikitomori: youth who don't leave their rooms

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  • Campus experiences prepare #collegestudents for adulthood in more ways than their #career

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J. M. Barrie's famous 1904 play, Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, reflected the difficulty of the young entering the adult world in Victorian times. The story, still enormously popular, made the refusal to grow up sound charming. Far less charming is the thwarted transition to adulthood in contemporary Japan. A new Japanese word, hikitomori, has been coined to describe hundreds of thousands of youngsters, mostly boys, who withdraw to their rooms, do not go to school or take jobs, open their doors only to take in trays of food supplied by their mothers, and do essentially nothing for years, sometimes decades, except perhaps to watch television.

If their worried families manage to get them into some kind of therapy that induces them to return to school or work, they have nevertheless lost out on the opportunities that might have been available to them if they had made the transition when most of their peers did. The beginning of a long article in the New York Times Magazine about hikitomori published on January 15, 2006, described one case as follows:

One morning when he was 15, Takeshi shut the door to his bedroom, and for the next four years he did not come out. He didn't go to school. He didn't have a job. He didn't have friends. Month after month, he spent 23 hours a day in a room no bigger than a king-size mattress, where he ate dumplings, rice and other leftovers that his mother had cooked, watched TV game shows and listened to Radiohead and Nirvana. "Anything," he said, "that was dark and sounded desperate."

Maggie Jones, author of the article, interviewed a Japanese psychiatrist, Dr. Tamaki Saito,who treated more than a thousand hikitomori and initially diagnosed the strange behavior as a type of depression or personality disorder. Eventually, however, he concluded that they were simply dropouts from a society in which they had come to feel acutely unsuccessful and uncomfortable. Some families hire "rental sisters" skillful in penetrating the isolation of hikitomori and persuading them to rejoin the world, but the process is agonizingly slow and expensive-about $8,000 a year. The United States does not have as large a population of people who withdraw from the world and refuse to assume adult responsibilities as Japan does. However, we do have children who refuse to go to school-cases of "school phobia"-as well as homeless people who cannot find jobs or do not want to and employed persons who avoid marriage and parenthood.

"Japan's hikitomori are paradoxical evidence that overprotective parents and weak peer group support are impediments to the transition to adulthood." -- Jackson Toby

The Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea, studied by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski a century ago, would have found Peter Pan and the hikitomori baffling, if not unbelievable, because the transition to adulthood was so easy for them. The Trobrianders lived in small villages where they knew everyone. Their educational and occupational training came informally from adult kin and neighbors, as they moved gradually from the role of child to the role of adult. Even the death of a parent was less of a loss for Trobrianders than it is for an American child because many nurturing adults were available close by.

Most children in modern Western societies make the transition successfully, despite the difficulties of leaving the protective cocoon of the small families to attend school, to get jobs, and to find strangers to marry. How do they do it? Do they get help and, if so, where does it come from? Sociologist Talcott Parsons gave a lot of the credit to the peer group, pointing out that some of the dependency on parents at home is transferred to classmates at school and neighborhood playmates and friends. By spreading dependency over a large number of friends and classmates instead of a very small set of parents, young people are on the road to the independence adults need.

Japan's hikitomori are paradoxical evidence that overprotective parents and weak peer group support are impediments to the transition to adulthood. Traditionally, Japanese parents have kept children imbedded in the family to a much greater extent than the United States and other Western societies. Japanese children spend long hours in school and further long hours at cram schools preparing for entrance exams for high school and universities. They have very little time for friends or neighborhood peer interaction. Suppressing the youth culture has facilitated superb academic accomplishments from many Japanese adolescents. However, other Japanese adolescents feel so isolated from the adult world that they prefer not to venture out of the safety of their rooms.

What does this have to do with attendance at colleges and universities? Perhaps commentators on American higher education, myself included, have not paid enough attention to the peer-support role of interaction with fellow students as preparation for the transition to adulthood. Studying with classmates, playing sports with friends, going to football and basketball games, and just idle conversation may contribute to academic performance or persistence. To explore this possibility, a Rutgers colleague and I conducted an intensive study of the time-use of a random sample of undergraduates. We paid 80 residents of dorms at one undergraduate college $35 each to keep logs of their time for an entire week, accounting for every ten-minute interval of time. They handed in the logs on the following day, except for weekends when we collected the logs for Saturday and Sunday on Monday morning. We learned about all kind of activities: conversations with friends, watching television, taking showers, working out at the gym, communicating by telephone, attending classes, doing homework. We collected data from university records for their full university careers as well as from the logs they filled out. The 19 seniors reported doing more school-related activities (reading, studying, homework), on average 18.4 hours a week, compared with the 12.3 hours a week on average done by the 19 freshmen; the seniors also spent more time attending classes, 10.7 hours on average, compared with the 8.7 hours of the freshmen. The seniors engaged in less entertainment (watching television, recreation, shopping, and hobbies) --14.6 hours on average for them compared with 17.5 hours for the freshmen--and drastically less socializing (conversation, eating out, partying)--18.1 hours for them compared with 25.4 hours for the freshmen. One interpretation of these data is that most college students, whether they are freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors, spend too much time on socializing and entertaining themselves than they spend on academic pursuits. Apparently no Isaac Newtons in the offing. A more charitable interpretation is that many students need peer support in order to cope with the intrinsic loneliness of studying-and to prevent an even higher rate of dropout from college than the United States has now. Our college dropouts are nothing like the tens of thousands of Japanese hikitomori who simply close the doors to their rooms and stop transitioning toward adulthood.

Not so long ago females attended college at much lower rates than males, apparently on the assumption that most would not need a college education in order to raise children and cook for their families. At that time, as the joke had it, parents encouraged "girls" who enrolled at college to prefer the "MRS." degree to the B.A. Nowadays, a majority of college students are women, and women are well represented in most occupations, including professional and managerial ones. Concomitantly, the marriage rate of both male and female college graduates has fallen. Not only do American college graduates marry later than they did fifty years ago; some don't get married at all. If the transition to adulthood includes receptivity to marriage and the start of families as well as rehabilitation of the old ideal of family meals, maybe colleges should encourage preparation for family life for both male and female students as well as preparation for careers. Unlike the Trobriand Islanders studied by Dr. Malinowski, college students usually lack rudimentary skills needed for family formation when they arrive on a college campus. Thanks to the sex education courses they take in high school as well as their own experiences, they know how a penis is inserted into a vagina. That is not enough to become companionate marriage partners and nurturing parents. College students may not realize that campus experiences teach them how to handle relationships successfully with members of both sexes; intellectual opportunities and career preparation are not the only preparation for adulthood they can receive. Four years of interacting with agemates of both sexes provide peer-group experiences to draw upon for the difficult task of choosing marital partners in our family system without much parental guidance.

As difficult as the transition to adulthood is for everybody in modern societies, it is more difficult for people with developmental disabilities or mental illness. Leaving home to attend college arouses fears and feelings of homesickness even among attractive, sociable freshmen without psychological or physical handicaps. But students who arrive on the campus with a history of mental illness or who have a psychiatric breakdown at some point in their educational careers may be facing what is for them insurmountable problems. That is why clubhouses for people with serious mental illness exist. At the 16th international conference of the International Center for Clubhouse Development in Stockholm from July 9 to July 14, 2011, members and staff came from 32 American clubhouses, 11 clubhouses in the host country, Sweden, 5 clubhouses in Norway, 11 clubhouses in Finland, 3 in Australia, 2 in Mainland China, 2 in South Korea, 4 in Japan, 2 in Scotland, 1 in South Africa, 3 in Italy, 1 clubhouse in Israel, and members and staff from clubhouses in several other countries.

"As difficult as the transition to adulthood is for everybody in modern societies, it is more difficult for people with developmental disabilities or mental illness."-- Jackson Toby

Members of the clubhouses promote the gradual recovery of distressed members from mental illness by encouraging them to continue education and to take jobs, to the extent that medical treatment of their illnesses permits. Though each clubhouse has a director and paid staff, the crucial recovery strategy is peer support from people who have themselves experienced the terrors of mental illness.

The following transcript of a talk by Dave, a clubhouse member from the Stepping Stone Clubhouse in Brisbane, Australia, at a session of the Swedish conference illustrates how crucial peer support is:

At first I did not think I was sick nor had anything wrong with my mental health. I felt withdrawn, constantly exhausted and becoming increasingly tearful for no apparent reason…I simply thought that with all that was going on and all the hours I had been working, I was just suffering from exhaustion.

I had reached the point where my personal hygiene was affected in that I was not interested in caring or grooming myself. I had become suicidal and my elderly father had resorted to giving up his social life to care for me full-time and take over the running of my day-to-day affairs.

It wasn't long before I was being forcibly admitted to a number of psychiatric hospitals and…those treating me were playing around with my medications, increasing them one minute, and then changing them. In one instant the sudden medication change resulted in a totally out of character burst of agitation which resulted in police being called and me being treated like a common criminal….

Prior to my involvement in Stepping Stone Clubhouse, … I had neither friends nor any real contact with the outside world apart from the contact I had with my caregiver/father, who had made many sacrifices in his life to keep an eye on me. Due to the onset of mental illness, my former extroverted personality had turned to one of an introvert who secluded himself into his bedroom for well in excess of six months and then total withdrew from mainstream society for the next 7 years.

Day after day, month after month and year by year, I was in the darkness and could see no light whatsoever at the end of the tunnel.

All hope was gone until the day I finally decided to take the advice of my new psychiatrist and head along to Stepping Stone Clubhouse.

From the moment I walked in the door of the Clubhouse for the very first time, I had felt a sensation that had been lost a long time ago. I felt as if I was HOME amongst a large gathering of friends. I felt accepted and more importantly, I felt that I was not being judged….

I knew I was not going to get cured by coming to such a place. I did however; start to see a glimmer of hope for me.

After joining Stepping Stone Clubhouse, it didn't take long before I started to be given tasks, which were ones of trust and responsibilities... Even the minor tasks like assisting in the putting together of our Daily Flyer, or entering attendances [sic] into the Data Base were tasks which I found all gave me a sense of belonging to something special.

Members of other clubhouses gave similar accounts of the therapeutic effect of peer encouragement: how depressing their lives were until they joined a clubhouse, how they recovered with the help and encouragement of clubhouse members and staff-going back to school, earning degrees, and gradually taking more and more responsible jobs. Bear in mind, however, that the clubhouse members chosen to come to the conference in Stockholm were disproportionately those who had benefited from being members. The failures had either drifted away from the clubhouses or had resisted involvement in the educational-support and transitional-employment programs that clubhouses consider crucial to recovery. Those of us who attended the conference concluded that the transition to adulthood for people with serious mental illnesses is very difficult but not impossible.

Unlike Peter Pan, most young people, even those with good reasons to be fearful of taking on adult responsibilities, want to grow up. Attending college may help them do so.

Jackson Toby is an adjunct scholar at AEI

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