Meeting Standards and Expectations

In my previous role when I served as the dean of students at the University of Texas at Austin, I remember one particular moment where I said to some colleagues rather casually, “It doesn’t matter to me whether my child goes to college or not. I just want her to be happy.” My statement was met with shock. I had spent my life either as a student or as an administrator in a university. My “life” revolved around “higher” education.

As I moved away from my institutional life, I began to examine how our society has enforced the standardization of the lives of children and young adults.

In primary schools, standards are set for what and how children should learn. Children are tracked based on their performance on standardized tests. Not meeting (or exceeding) expectations of institutionalized education results in labeling. Standardization serves the institutions, not the individuals.

As children turn into teenagers, we expect them to begin thinking about their future and set goals that they need to work toward. If expectations of that child include college, then young adults are tracked into college. Once there, they need to decide a major and prepare for their career. If the expectations do not include college, then young adults must move into a full-time job.

This kind of standardization ignores the realities of human development. Children learn when they are developmentally ready to learn. For some children, this is earlier and for others, it is much later.

In my own life, I was on a path in which I had decided from a very young age (friends in middle school remember this about me) that I was going to law school and be a lawyer.

I had goals and career plans. I spent 20 years focused on my career and reached my dream job. I hated it. I did not spend any time when I was younger really thinking about who I was and what I wanted.

I continued to feel discontented and unhappy throughout this time. Although I was passionate about some things in career and I was successful in institutions, I had to come to the conclusion (at 40) that the life I had built was not right for me.

For those 20 years I worked at three universities. I worked with so many students who were supposed to know by a certain age what they were working toward (according to society and parents).

I saw tragic results of these expectations, including suicide and death.

One of the most difficult moments in my role as dean was having to tell a family whose daughter was just taken off life support, that they could not have her degree because she had not been enrolled for two years. They had come into town for her graduation. For two years, she had been pretending to her friends and family that she was still going to classes, even though she had been academically disqualified. She could not bring herself to let go of society’s expectations and follow a path that was right for her.

This woman’s story is, of course, extreme. However, I saw the impact of individuals not living their true lives throughout my time in universities. It may have manifested as stress, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, or just a feeling of discontent and perhaps anger.

Those personal and professional experiences convinced me that I wanted to give my children the room to really know who they were through the means that best suited them. It can be so hard to trust their timeframe because if we experienced institutionalized education we did not have the benefit of this trust. This does not mean that if my children choose to participate in institutionalized education, that I will not support them. For me the critical difference is choice.

Perhaps also being a partner to Rob (who found his passion, archaeology, when he was in his 30’s and then becoming a dad, when he was in his 40s) has helped me to know and trust that we are each on our own path and time. When Rob first enrolled in college right out of high school he struggled. When he went back finished on his on time frame and studying what he wanted to study, he flourished.

If we can honor this time frame, then each individual is able to develop and grow naturally and fully in the ways that are best for them.

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