Columnist Susan Wozniak: ‘When, and how, does childhood end?’

  • Susan Wozniak, columnist

Published: 11/21/2019 7:00:16 PM
Modified: 11/21/2019 7:00:06 PM

I’ve wanted to write about parenting for some time and not because I was a successful parent. How to approach the subject held me back. I neither wanted to voice regret nor to exaggerate nor to complain.

However, because of a student, I saw that parents often repeat the mistakes of their parents. My student found writing difficult and asked if she could have more than one conference for each paper. Of course, she could. During one meeting, she admitted that she never wanted to go to college. Her parents made her go. She was right. Her work ethic was terrific, but, she had trouble reading. She tried to make the best of her situation, like the responsible person she is.

She wasn’t alone. There were other young adults who have their own reasons for not engaging in higher education immediately after high school, or, not going at all. My case was the opposite of theirs. My parents would have been happy if I had found a job while still wearing my mortarboard, even if it was just behind the dime store counter. I was not alone. I knew women students who, because they chose education over family, had no choice but to leave home.

What is the problem? Preconceived notions of what is appropriate? Of success? The younger generation adapting more easily to new technologies? Or is the problem that parents do not know their children?

For a time, I thought there are no longer norms, or, at least, there are no norms like those from my childhood. My friends and I were largely raised by Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” Their world had strict norms for dress, for what to read, for the workforce, as well as norms that defined how they were to relate to each other, and, yes, norms for how to relate to God.

Perhaps, they never questioned those norms. Yet, their era’s war began to rupture them. But one question that never seemed to have been asked is when does a parent stop telling a child what to do, which ought to be accompanied by another question. That is, when (and how) does childhood end?

During my childhood, my mother walked us to the local business district every Thursday when the bookmobile parked in front of the insurance agency. We pulled a wagon so we could bring home groceries and enough books to last a week. As I read above my grade level, I was grateful for those wagonloads of books.

The consequence to me was by age 12, I saw myself becoming either an archeologist or a physical anthropologist. Those ambitions embarrassed my mother. And while some girls had a temporary interest in archeology, I truly loved it. Later, as a mother myself, I watched a mother of my generation force her daughter to take lessons and engage in extracurriculars. She told her daughter that she would go to Harvard and become a doctor like her father.

That child’s story and mine had different endings. I compromised to avoid the scenes I anticipated. I went to a woman’s college that did not offer archeology. The neighbor’s child graduated from Harvard.

After her graduation ceremony, she said goodbye to her shocked parents. She told them she was not coming home and not going to med school. Then, she walked away and joined the friends she was moving to New York with. She seized the day while I attempted compromise.

Was her bravery a norm her generation embraced? I’ve emphasized one of the big decisions that make or break a life. Decisions that must be made by the adolescent child. I recently heard from a father whose daughter had no idea what she wanted out of college. “I might as well major in business,” she said.

Her father told her he would not pay for a business degree and suggested she take electives in order to find her passion. Explore, he urged. Was he controlling? No, he was telling her to find her own way.

This year, a scandal broke. Celebrity parents were buying their children’s ways into elite colleges with money and lies. How did their children handle the embarrassment? Did they mind being misrepresented? Did they long to take a gap year to travel, to do volunteer work, to gain real life experience? Did the kids realize that they were old enough to make their own choices and to accept what followed?

A native of Michigan, Susan Wozniak belongs to three alumni associations with at least one other woman named Susan Wozniak in each. She can be reached at

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