My family and I live in a residential college on a mid-western university campus. My husband is a professor, but I am a regular civilian. When I have time away from my corporate life and my own two teenagers, I try to entertain myself by getting to know the 168 members of Gen Z, most of them first-years, who live in our building.
Unlike others who opt to live on campus, I am not a natural fit for this kind of thing. I am basically a high-functioning misanthrope and it has been decades since I have been able to successfully fake sustained sincerity. But as the mother of teens, these newly launched adults feel increasingly familiar to me, and I’ve become unexpectedly protective and nurturing.
Frankly, it’s exhausting, but your kids are making me catch feelings. They are only two years older than my oldest child, so I treat them as little crystal balls projecting into the future. Your kids live all around us now. I encounter them all day, every day, and they are, to me, a surprising joy.
In the fall, they awkwardly say good morning when I pass them by, but I know they all have the same questions the minute I’m out of earshot: Who are these adult humans and their offspring, and why are they living in our dorm? The answer is that we’re here to be their neighbors. The kind parents tell kids to go find in an emergency, like a pending tornado or when you’re out of eggs and you only need one.
Thankfully, true emergencies almost never happen and when they do, the resident advisers pretty much handle it, so we focus on giving them a small sense of community. We’re interested but not intrusive, and we like to make the students feel welcome in their new neighborhood. To do this, we invite them over, in shifts, for breakfasts during the fall semester. This is when they renew my faith in humanity, one plate of waffles at a time.
Here’s how I know your children are really wonderful people:
- They show up on time. The invitation said 11:30. They came at 11:30. Maybe 11:35, but that’s excusable. The point is they got up, got dressed, and showed up when the food was still hot.
- They all immediately ask if I need a dog walker. Sorry, parents who spent the teen years yelling at their child to walk the damn dog, but when they show up here all they want to do is hang out with mine. You can see their souls relax when they notice two dogs sitting there waiting to greet them at our door. If a dog can trigger involuntarily kindness and cooing sounds in your child, then they are clearly decent people who are ready to save in the world.
- They are nice to my kids. They remember their names and don’t act too cool to get to know them. They take an interest in my daughter’s endless projects. They empathize with my son’s junior-year stress. They definitely avoid talking about the wild night they had at Delta Sigma Whateverit’scalled while they sit around my dining room table. They don’t behave like they are at a babysitting interview, but neither do they pretend like the younger kids aren’t there. They are entirely appropriate, behave like role models, and intuit correctly that they need to Keep. It. Clean.
- They don’t eat and run. Although I always expect them to and it’s ok if that happens. They compliment the food, even the completely lame hard boiled eggs I made 15 minutes before they showed up. They proceed through the buffet line obediently, exactly as I tell them to, and they don’t mind scooting over to make room for the kids who didn’t RSVP ahead of time. Oh — and most of them RSVP.
- They start talking the minute they arrive. We’re all still total strangers to each other, but they immediately engage with each other and with me. They let me ask them stupid nosy questions and, when I do, they relax enough to ask me a few of their own. They laugh easily with each other within minutes. These are hard-working kids, but they are also able to set aside their drive and determination long enough to take in interest in those around them. They don’t look at their phones once the entire time they are in my home. I don’t ask this of them. They just don’t.
- THEY ALL OFFER TO DO THE DISHES. I’m not kidding. Usually one or two appear next to my sink, and then it’s just like bowling pins of politeness, each one of them tripping over themselves to get into my teeny tiny kitchen and make things shine. They even insist on teaching me how to compost, which they think I’m too old to understand. Of course I don’t let them. I take the dishes out of their hands, gesture to my worn-in composting bin, assure them they are our guests, and invite them to relax. Have more coffee. And pet the dog. The looks of contented gratitude on their faces when I tell them that makes my cold snarky heart melt.
- They leave. En masse, when they notice me drying the pans used to cook their food. There are grown-ass adults who have never learned to pick up on my embarrassingly inhospitable cues that the meal is over and it’s time for them to go. These kids don’t make me bang around in the kitchen pointedly to get them out of my house. They have a timer in their collective brain that is aligned perfectly with mine. At this point in the meal, it’s hard to imagine me loving them more.
- They thank me. Even though my husband is the one who cooked, they gush a little, and their gratitude is incredibly sincere. I tell myself that it is just the first signs of dining hall fatigue setting in, but it is very touching nonetheless. They ask again if they can help clean up (twice is good- they can leave with a clear conscience after offering twice, right?) thank me again, and go back into the wild with the rest of their pack.
Parents of newly launched adults, Thank you. Thank you for raising your children to be good guests and good neighbors. They are lovely, functional, and contributing members of this crazy little campus community and ready for the world. I have tried, in the past, to assure you that they are doing just fine, but it might also help you to know that they are nice people and good humans. They may be here studying to save the planet in all kinds of complex ways, but it should also satisfy you to know that they are absolutely doing it right.
In every way most important to the future of humanity, they are already nailing it.
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Leslie Zacks, her professor husband, and her children live in an undergraduate residential college of a mid-western university were she has the opportunity to observe, mostly unnoticed, a large herd of new freshman every fall.