Parenting in Light of the Sinking of the Essex


I wrote the following blogpost several years ago, but I think it bears repeating in light of the pandemic. Even though this virus is unwelcomed and unwanted, it has brought family members in close proximity to one another. This creates both challenges (i.e., getting on each other's last nerve) and opportunities. If you are the parent of a tween or teen, my hope is that you would see this "togetherness" as a time to hand over both responsibilities and privileges to give your emerging adults a sense of self-efficacy and mastery before they leave home. You will understand why when you read the story of the sinking of the Essex...

What does parenting in the 21st century have to do with the sinking of a whaling ship, Essex, in 1821. Nothing, really. But I think our approach to parenting has a lot of do with what happened after the Essex sunk and the captain and 20 crew had to decide what to do next. Essentially, they had 3 choices—head to the nearest island grouping about 1200 miles away; head to the Hawaiian islands even farther away; head south 1000 miles to pick up some trade winds that could eventually cast them upon the South American coastline…an additional 3000 miles. All choices were fraught will peril. Rumor had it that the nearest island group was the home of a cannibalistic culture. To head to the Hawaiian Islands meant certain death; the small whaling boats could not weather the severe storm systems at that time of year. The third option, due to its length, held visions of starvation and thirst given the limited supplies aboard the small vessels. Eventually, the captain and crew chose to head to South America. Eight survived the ordeal and not without reverting to cannibalism.

According to Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles, fear is a form of storytelling. The story that the collective fears of the captain and crew of the Essex told them was that cannibalism (even though a rumor) was the worst of all possible outcomes. Because this fear was so lurid, it caused them to underplay the very real and probable outcome of death by starvation given a 4000 mile journey.

I see a direct connection to parenting. Often we underplay very real (and probable) concerns because of sensational (and statistically far less significant) fears. Every spring, I host a college series to inform SAS parents and families about issues concerning financing a college education as well as college admissions and parenting through the process. There is a lot of hype in media about the difficulty of getting into college when, in fact, more than 50% of four-year colleges/universities accept 75% or more of their applicants. What seems to be less talked about is actually completing the college degree. It is much more sensational to talk about a handful of colleges who admit less than 10% of their applicant pool. I think a more productive conversation would start with the question, “Apart from the ability to pay, what does it take for a student to complete an undergraduate degree?” followed by the question, “What am I doing today to insure that my student has the qualities/skills that it takes to accomplish this task…preferably in four years?”

Let’s inform these legitimate and important concerns with the facts. The United States ties for 17th place among 22 industrialized countries for high school graduation.  Just 62 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years, and only 33 percent of those who start two-year degrees finish them within three years.

So besides money concerns, what are some of the very real “risk” factors that cause student to drop out of college? Take a look:

  • Poor “life skills” to handle the transition. Students often find that they don’t know how to manage the academic workload and balance that with a social life and handling life’s daily concerns.
  • Unfortunate life circumstances combined with lack of counsel. Students may make a snap decision to drop out of college when a family member becomes ill or a relationship goes awry. Often students in this situation don’t consult the college faculty or a family member before withdrawing.
  • Little structure and accountability. Without the ability to self-regulate and set healthy boundaries (e.g., getting to class, eating properly, seeking out an academic advisor), students can begin to coast and end up with disciplinary action and/or academic probation.
  • Choosing not to take full advantage of the opportunities. Students can find themselves in the crowd if they don’t get to know their professors, inquire about research and/or internship possibilities, and seek help from faculty when they begin to experience difficulty with their coursework. Check out the six criteria that define college success (p.17).

Still not convinced? Take a few minutes to listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims' TED talk: "How to Raise Successful Kids without Over-parenting".

Parents, let’s make sure that our fears are informed with the facts. And let’s ask ourselves, “What am I doing today to make sure my student is prepared to handle the transition from high school to college?”

Please feel free to comment below if you have ideas to share about how you have been helping your student prepare—academically, socially, financially, emotionally—for this next phase of life!


About Author

Page Cvelich

College/Teen Program Manager

Page Cvelich has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Work/Life Center from prior experience as a high school guidance counselor and parent education coordinator. Page has been responsible for setting up a high school college and career center, designing a career exploration program for teens and serving as a counselor at a backpacking camp in the Rockies. In her role as Teen/College Program Manager, Page enjoys interacting with small groups of parents and teens, as well as consulting one-on-one with parents and referring them to resources so that they are better able to provide the support and encouragement their kids need.

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