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Lenore Skenazy
Lenore Skenazy
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How To Cheer Up College Kids

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A new study — there's always a new study, isn't there? — finds that college students today are more depressed than the ones during the Depression. Talk about ironic.

The study compared college student responses to a personality survey in 1938 with responses to that same survey in 2007 and found several factors trending up, including a feeling that "the rules don't apply to me," depression and anxiety.

The authors of the study rightly point out that none of this tells us WHY a generation is growing up gloomy. (They dither that maybe it's because we're in a more superficial society.) At the same time, some academics question whether it's really happening at all; after all, we're talking about the results of a single survey, and a demographically very different cohort may have taken it this time around. It's also possible, I'd like to add, that the people in those more stoic times answered the questions with a tad more reticence than the people in these "Let it all hang out (and tell Oprah about it, too!)" times.

And — one more caveat — I think it's great that kids DO feel they can admit to psychological misery and avail themselves of help. (So thanks — sort of — Oprah.)

But it is also quite possible that American young adults are, as the study suggests, simply less resilient today than the young adults in the Depression — which wouldn't surprise me one whit.

Not that I pine for the days when kids milked cows or mined coal. (Doing the dishes? That's another story. Picking up the towels that don't just magically head back to the bathroom on their own? Hallelujah!) But in the normal course of growing up, children were — until very recently — expected to really help the family out. This not only gave parents a cheap source of labor but also gave kids an easy source of purpose and pride.

Another essay I was reading the other day talked about how we give our kids so many "virtual" opportunities to grow up but so few real ones these days.

Yes, you can go abroad, my 18-year-old darling — with a college program that organizes everything for you, right down to a meal plan. Yes, you can help build a village, my 22-year-old dumpling — and leave after three weeks with the schoolhouse unfinished but your course work done. There's nothing bad about these programs, but they can't possibly instill the same kind of self-esteem that comes from actually doing something on one's own. That's why it's called "self"-esteem, not "college-organized"-esteem.

Add to all this babying the extra whammy that for some reason, our kids believe we expect them to rule the world AND make millions (I don't know why they think we expect that, but often they do) and you are bound to end up with some self-flagellating young folks who just feel they are not making it. In her book "A Nation of Wimps," Psychology Today's Hara Marano documents the stories of kids breaking down on campus when they're finally — and suddenly — given grown-up freedom. These are kids whose loving parents fought their battles and edited their papers and chose their classes. Sometimes those parents even pick up the phone and call their kids' professors.

The kids feel 3 years old.

What would help? Well, I don't think anyone's opting for a new Depression. But giving kids more independence and responsibility as they're growing up is a great idea. Simple things, such as baby-sitting jobs and paper routes and maybe even writing their own college essays.

Our kids don't have to wake up at dawn and bale hay to thrive. But to play "pretend grown-up" while being kept a child is harder than any game. And there isn't even a winner.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry" and "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can't Remember Right Now." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy (lskenazy@yahoo.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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