I teach writing to college students. I school them in story structure and tone, coach them in voice and diction.
My students teach me things, too. I’ve learned, for example, how ridiculous the phrase “Professor Starshine” sounds. I’ve learned that making literary analogies to Ghostbusters — no matter how clever it seems to me — is inscrutable to people who were born in 1992.
But the most important thing I’ve learned from my students is this simple fact: When a four-year old pees on the floor, he ought to clean it up. You’re looking at me as though I just made another impenetrable Ghostbusters reference, but let me explain.
Parents are working harder than ever to get their kids into college. They start saving when their children are born, help them choose college prep courses as early as middle school, and schlep them to transcript-dazzling extracurricular pursuits throughout high school.
But from where I stand — at the front of a classroom of legal adults who show up at a writing class without a pen — I fret their efforts may be off the mark. In fact, some of my campus colleagues and I agree that while today’s parents get an “A” in Getting Their Kids Into College, they get an “F” in Teaching the Entitled Little Buggers What to Do Once They Get There.
To be fair, I have lots of amazing students: alert, organized, motivated. But I have some who don’t know the basic things a grown-up should know. Like how to keep a weekly calendar. Or affix a staple to the corner of a four-page essay. (An instructor I know tells her students, “There’s an entire store devoted to helping you with your problem. It’s called Staples.”)
My students can write. And from what I hear, they have mad skills in Japanese, macroeconomics, and human physiology. What’s missing from their academic record is Common Courtesy 101 and Introduction to Personal Responsibility.
“I wish parents would teach their kids to respect other people’s time,” says a professor I know. “I want to say to students, ‘No, after you come into class 10 minutes late, take the seat farthest from the door and bang your backpack into other people, it’s not my job to catch you up on where we are.’ “
Professors’ pet peeves are students who cut class and then ask, “Did I miss anything important?” or blow off homework then ask us to create extra-credit assignments to boost their grades. A student once emailed me to say he couldn’t attend class because the surf was up.
Such affronts have made me a crabby teacher — but they’ve made me a better parent. Terrified of producing young adults who can’t replace the ink cartridge in a printer or find a ride to school when (gulp) their car is impounded, I’ve started expecting more from my own kids.
No longer do I pick up the towel that my sixth-grader leaves in a heap on the bathroom floor; I make him come hang it himself. No more do I grimace, sigh, and reach for the Lysol wipes when my four-year-old “misses” the toilet; I taught him how to manage the clean-up himself.
One frustrated professor tells me she rides her second-grader about remembering her lunchbox every day. “It’s the exact same cognitive process as remembering to bring your book to your college class,” she says, “and I want her to learn it now.”
College isn’t the place to learn accountability — and I don’t know a single professor who considers it her job to teach it. It’s your child’s last stop before the cutthroat, unforgiving job market. And if Junior’s still whining “I can’ts” and ducking behind “I didn’ts” at that point, well, to paraphrase the Ghostbusters, “This kid is toast.”