As we enter midterms, parents feel the full-on impact of their empty nest. Whether their first child has just flown the coop or their last one has. Many parents feel the emptiness of that vacant bedroom, the bed still made, and the staleness of unoccupied air. Like me, they wonder if their kids miss them the way they miss them. I will spare you the suspense, parents…They don’t.
As a college instructor of 23 years, I’ve borne witness to the pain of parents’ experience as their children leave them to forge their own paths, but it’s usually funneled through the lens of the student and not the heartbroken sadness of the parent. It might take the form of comments made to the “the new influential adults” in their lives (i.e., me) and others such as residential assistants or academic counselors.
“My mother is driving me crazy by texting me every day,” they might say. Or it might be something like, “My dad just won’t stop calling me or asking about my grades.” A few confide in me that their flight from home was a much-welcomed escape from being micro-managed by overbearing parents.
They tell me it was a necessary step to free themselves of parents who, according to them, have nothing else to do with their time. As a mother to a new college student, I now sympathize with the parent on the other end of that conversation. Surely, after all these years of listening to the horror stories recounted by my students, I have not become one of these monsters. Or have I? It’s nightmarish to consider, but…what if?
Eric Erikson’s “Stages of Psychosocial Development”
I take a step back and remember how I responded, oh so sympathetically, to those college students for all these years. I reflect on the developmental need to establish oneself as an independent creature in the world, as self-reliant and confident in one’s own abilities. It brings to mind the classic work of Eric Erickson, whose theories I’ve taught for decades, and his description of the central struggles of being in this age group.
College students are at the crux of two very significant developmental stages. The first, which Erickson describes as Identity versus Role Confusion, is the stage in life where young people are cognitively designed to place a high premium on their peer relationships as central to their success. Failure to hit this mark can leave a young person with lasting questions about their own competency and may contribute to an inability to live up to societal expectations.
The next stage, called Intimacy versus Isolation, lasts much longer, but the foundation for success in this phase is set in our early twenties. The task is to develop meaningful relationships (love interests, employer/employee dynamics, and friendships) that solidify our place in society. Stagnation in this area can lead to missing important milestones on the path to independence and can thwart academic and personal achievement.
The key feature of these two developmental stages is that they are not heavily reliant upon parental involvement. Assuming that we have done our jobs (providing safety, shelter, love, and support) up until now, these successes largely take place in a social world that has (or should have) very little to do with us as parents.
These achievements can only be made individually, while parents quietly support a child’s endeavors from the sidelines. This brings me to the focus of this article — that quiet quitting may be the new parenting model for those of us wishing the best for our kids.
Benefits of “quiet quitting” your relationship with your college student
No matter what stage of empty nest syndrome you are in, you might want to consider the benefits of “quiet quitting” your relationship with your college student. Quiet quitting is a relatively new term, formulated mostly by disenchanted millennial workers who refuse to put extraordinary efforts beyond the skeletal requirements into their jobs.
The term is meant to reflect a relationship with one’s employer in which the employee achieves the bare minimum, only meeting the very basics of the job description. This level of engagement allows the employee the autonomy to perfect work/life balance while creating a space to seek out other interests, hobbies, and relationships. Work does not become all-consuming and is merely one aspect of the employee’s life.
For parents, embracing quiet quitting at this stage can be a win/win for both parties. The student is allowed the freedom to seek success, and feel the full weight of their failures, while we reap the benefits of forging a new identity. Stepping back from all-consuming parenting not only grants us the space to live new, self-defined lives but also allows the new adults (like me) in your child’s life to offer guidance and support in areas that are our expertise.
The ‘new adults’ in your child’s life have a lot to offer them
After all, many of us have been working with young adults for decades, and we have a keen sense of where they need to be right now to function outside of the university and in their careers. Students gravitate to us when they struggle with big issues because we represent a “safe” parental figure, but we carry none of the baggage of parenting them directly. This space is the wonderful college experience, where we become inspired by innovative thoughts, imaginative people, and novel ways of thinking.
While I am struggling in my own right to quiet quit parenting, I ask other parents to join me in considering the benefits of doing “just the bare minimum” with their kids. Trust that you have created a strong foundation, and offer them the freedom to be free of your constant inquires.
Someone like me is on the other end of that freedom and will happily give them advice and send them off into the world, knowing they will fly the highest with a nudge out of the nest. So, parents, permit yourself to embrace quiet quitting and do a little soaring of your own. It will be good and full of personal rewards for you and your college student.
More Great Reading:
What you Should NEVER Do as the Parent of a College Student