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I know what you’re going through

A Message From the Senior Associate Vice President For Student Affairs

Frank Shushok, Jr. with his family
Frank Shushok, Jr., with his family

It was just two years ago that we dropped off our oldest son, Brayden, at Pritchard Residence Hall. While I work at Virginia Tech and have 25 years under my belt working with college students, a surprisingly unfamiliar emotion engulfed me as my wife, Kelly, and I walked away from Brayden’s new “home.” The excellent advice I had offered parents over the years was now mine to practice. I had no idea that what I had gently coached others to do as an administrator would be so hard to practice as a parent.

First, I was supposed to remember that his successes or failures were no longer our responsibility, but his. This would mean setting up our relationship parameters with general expectations and extending significant degrees of freedom for our son to explore his own goals, identities, and life-management details. While I was white-knuckled and sometimes gut-punched as I tried to stand by and watch him thrive without our help; or procrastinate without much self-awareness; or fall short in an academic, social, or leadership effort, I got the opportunity to watch our son “become.” Brayden’s first year in college was not so much about success or failure, it was about becoming himself—growth made possible only through his independent choices apart from us.

Even though I knew his experience was valuable, I had to wrestle with whether Brayden’s “becoming” met my definition of success. I wondered whether I, like many parents, might be pressing “success” too hard, which I know can ramp up our kids’ stress and anxiety.

As an educator, I am aware of the recent Harvard study that found 80% of middle and high school students thought their parents care more about personal achievements than being kind. I realized that kindness, like so many other wonderful traits, is something we become, not achieve. If we are not very careful as parents, our hopes for our children may be perceived by them to be related to what they accomplish, rather than who they are.

With a little time behind me since Brayden’s first year at Virginia Tech, I am waking up to some important insights—none more important than the revelation that I too was experiencing a major developmental transition. Developmental psychologist Erik Erickson describes eight stages of psychosocial development, the eighth of which takes place between the ages of 40-65. These years can be rich, yet also hard. In fact, Erickson says adults face a psychological crisis during this period, a stage he calls “Generativity vs. Stagnation.” Generativity, according to Erikson, includes taking stock of where you have been, where you are going, and whether or not your life is making a meaningful contribution.

I think Erickson is talking about “becoming”—not the kind Brayden is learning on the brink of adulthood, but the kind available to us parents in the phase we often call midlife. Just as the transition from high school to college can be daunting for our students, being a “middle-aged” adult can be similarly challenging. In both cases, the process begins with the hope there is something or someone new for us to do or become, enough that we will risk new and sometimes scary choices. For us, that means finding our own kind of independence—apart from our children and the daily parental joys, tasks, and stresses that have marked our lives for the past several decades. It means looking towards what is next—all while cherishing our evolving relationships with our children and trusting that the rough patches will be far less than the enormous and cumulative growth that both our futures hold.

So—launching kids is hard work. Let your student find the space to explore, to question, to struggle, to learn, to fail, to flourish. Likewise, let yourself find the same. After all, we are all in the long journey toward becoming ourselves.

With hope,

Frank Shushok signature

Frank Shushok, Jr., Ph.D.

Senior Associate Vice President for Student Affairs