Emptying the Nest

A popular metaphor for describing the transition from adolescence to adulthood is that of the eagle pushing her young forcibly and abruptly out of the nest. The falling eaglet either has a terror-induced epiphany – “Hey, I’m an eagle, I can fly!” – or hits the ground and stays there. In certain respects, this is an apt metaphor – the 40% mortality rate of eagles during their first flight is only slightly lower than the 50% failure rate for college entrants. Half of all students who enter college fail to finish, and most of these failures take the form of voluntary withdrawals during the first semester of the freshman year. Both eaglets and adolescents find the transition into adulthood so abrupt as to be barely survivable, with the birds holding a slight edge.

But while the image of shoving an eaglet from its nest highlights the hazards of growing up, it hardly offers us a model for parenting or educating adolescents. Incidentally, it also fails to accurately describe eagle behavior. “Birds do not, as a rule, push their young out of the nest,” says Jessica Griffiths, Coordinator of the Big Sur Ornithology Lab, “that would be counter-productive, since they want their young to be ready for independence before leaving the nest so that they will survive.” As it turns out, there’s more to learn from an accurate understanding of how eagles teach their young to fly than there is from the myth of the big push. For eagles, the transition from nest-bound adolescence to soaring adulthood is a gradual process that, according to ornithologists, relies on a combination of benevolent manipulation and guided experimentation.

Ornithologists have observed eagles coaxing, even taunting, their young from the nest, rather than just giving them a shove. When the fledgling eagle is almost ready to fly, parents have been observed to swoop by the nest with a fresh kill. Instead of landing in the nest as usual to share the meal, the parent lands near the nest and eats in plain view of its squawking, hungry teenager. This behavior continues until the fledgling is hungry enough to venture out of the nest, at which point the parent will share its food. This taunting behavior creates the appetite and incentive necessary for the fledgling to venture out of the nest of its own volition in pursuit of what it wants.

We too can leverage the impressive appetites of adolescents in order to coax them to ever greater levels of independence and autonomy. Rather than simply obeying their squawks for an iPod, a car, or a new pair of shoes, these desires can be leveraged as motivators for getting out of the house and working. Adolescents who learn to work for what they want will be better equipped to eventually work for what they need. As the child moves into and through to adolescence, allowances can yield to paid chores at home and then to work outside of the home. Over time parents can define a smaller and smaller set of essentials that they will provide, leaving their young adult to work for the “extras,” as defined by the parents. Requiring young people to work for the things they want instills a positive association between industry and acquisition and can have the effect of drawing them away from the nest. This kind of benevolent manipulation is critical at a time when more and more young adults are returning home for a protracted adolescence. The prospect of a dependent thirty-year old “child” is generally not attractive to either the child or the parent, but is becoming a more common reality.

Unlike many American adolescents, who go off to college never having paid a bill, held a job, or lived away from home, the eaglet has had ample guided experience with adult eagle activities prior to becoming independent. Fledgling eaglets start their flight training by doing what they have, for months, watched their parents do – spreading their wings. Drafts of wind catch the outstretched wings and levitate the fledgling slightly from the nest, giving it a feel for flight. Once this imitative behavior leads to the eaglet’s first awkward, half-accidental flight, the parents begin a focused training process designed to teach their youngster, step by step, how to survive independently (assuming, of course, that the eaglet survives that first flight). During this training stage, the eagle goes to work with its parents, observing and imitating the motions of flight and the skills of hunting, and venturing further and further from the nest. This kind of guided modeling during the eaglet’s last dependent summer is what allows it to survive as an adult.

Human parents would do well to involve their adolescent children in the work of running the household and, as mentioned above, require them to secure a job and work for their wants. Household work and out-of-home employment teach skills and competencies that are critical to college success, such as teamwork, specialization, goal-setting and planning, accountability, personal agency, and sustained voluntary affiliation. We can also imitate the eagles’ emphasis on providing their young with adventures away from the nest. Providing young people with graduated opportunities for guided independence is critical to preparing them for what can otherwise be an abrupt and overwhelming transition from home to a college dorm or apartment. Studies indicate that the majority of permanent college withdrawals occur in the first six weeks of the freshman year as the result of student choice; one may presume that this is largely a result of adjustment issues and simple homesickness. Experiences such as camp, boarding school, church trips, student exchange programs, and summer internships can provide manageable opportunities to gain the confidence necessary to live successfully away from home.

Perhaps the core lesson we can learn from eagles is to make the transition to independence a process. When it comes to preparing adolescents for this transition, however, we tend to resemble ostriches more than eagles. Rather than consciously engage in a process of preparation, we stick our heads in the sand, hoping against hope that the awful specter of our children growing up and moving out will just go away. We are then stuck with the even more awful reality of our children not growing up and not moving out, or moving out and meeting with failure.