TERRY PRONE: Shining the light of experience on the transition from child to adult

Interns who made initial contact with her company themselves, rather than relying on their parents to do so, fare better.

The capacity to stand back and say ‘go for it yourself’ is an important gesture of parental empowerment, writes Terry Prone

Y company gets a constant stream of applications for internships, from transition year students and those at third level. They want to work for us for a week. Two weeks. A month. Three months. Exposure to the glamour, excitement, and pressure of our best-in-class business will — they tell us in their begging emails — set them up for life.

They approach it in quite different ways, which had escaped us until we thought, in the last week, that we should do a little research into it. Transition year, you see, is the least documented social experiment in Ireland. It’s all anecdotal. Binary. Yes/no. Black and white. At least as far as parents are concerned.

On the one side is the group who think it’s a way of postponing the hour when idlers should be exposed for what they are and forced to earn a living for themselves, a year-long excursion into playtime, where teenagers who would be better off with their heads in their homework are allowed to play-act being entrepreneurs or sit in their uncle’s solicitors firm pretending to be interested in tort.

On the other side is the group of parents who think it’s the ultimate in maturation. Better than leaving squelched grapes to ferment into good wine, Transition year, as far as this bunch of parents is concerned, facilitates their offspring in becoming rounded and responsible adults. This bunch does an “all is changed, changed utterly” anthem about transition year. It is wonderful. The breakthrough. The catalyst.

Now, we hate the word “stakeholder,” because it is a lazy term letting a writer off the hook of specifying the people being written about. That said, it must be noted that teachers and other stakeholders tend to be in lockstep with the parents who think transition year is the best thing since the sliced pan. But they would, wouldn’t they? Transition year has to be easier than Leaving Cert year from any teacher’s point of view.

Lots of highly contrasting opinions, then, but not much in the way of objective measurement of transition year. It’s the same with internship, which tends to happen either as part of transition year or when a young person is a third- level student. Lots of opinions. Not that much objective research.

We thought it would be fun to examine our experience with interns, but it turned out to be way more trouble than it was worth, mainly because we have no category under which to keep records of interns. Pay can go under P for Paltry or N for Non-existent. Location happens depending on who, through being ill, injured or giving birth, has left an empty chair. Language is usually English, although we did have a six-month- long visit from a young German woman who would, if required, make phone calls in that language.

We did think of having her call the German speaking clock whenever clients were in the lobby, so that they might overhear and be impressed by our international reach, but we never got around to it. To hell with the speaking clock: That girl chewed up real work like it was going out of style. She was, we agreed, one of two exceptions in that regard. The other was a secondary school student so ethereally beautiful, and gifted with such gentle manners, that it took us a week to realise that she not only wrote perfect prose, but went through tasks like the old PacMan: Gobble gobble, gobble.

Other than those, I have to tell you, our experience with free slavery provided by students has been akin to the curate’s egg: Good in parts, bad in parts. The good ones, whenever we could, we sucked into our permanent staff. The bad ones we talk about through gritted teeth and with gestures.

“Do you remember the one with the hair?” we ask, instinctively shaping ourselves to self-consciously toss our locks in imitation, even if we’re bald. “Do we remember?” shrill the others. “Will we ever forget?” She was always rushing out to answer the door if someone famous was arriving, but her posterior was chair-glued if a client who is not a household name came to the door. Plus, she thought loading the dishwasher was beneath her.

In amid all the generalised gossip, one factor emerged which was interesting. The initial contact point with our company was a surprisingly accurate predictor of the success of the intern, whether they were students coming from second or third level.

The ones who emailed, phoned, or did in person make contact with one of our younger staff tended to do markedly better — with us, during their internships, in college, during their post-internship year or years and in career terms — than those whose parents did the contacting and who reached out to me or another of our directors. They did better and they sensibly stayed in touch with us.

Why was the initial contact significant? I asked, genuinely puzzled.

“OK, here’s a teenager whose mother once kind of knew you,” a staff member said, in a tone implying that the mother had probably known me back in the day when dinosaurs roamed freely through Montenotte. “The mother makes the contact with you.”

“What’s wrong with the mother making contact with me?” “Doesn’t suggest their kids are filled with get-up-and-go.” “Oh, come on, Ireland is a small place that operates on contacts.” “Maybe so, but the kid should be doing the work, not the mammy. These are adults, like? Sixteen, 17-year-olds, and their mammies are making the running for them?”

I pointed out that the PacMan girl had been introduced by a parent contacting me. And got shot down. She, I was told, was the shining exception that proves every rule. But for the most part, this informal and invalidated piece of research revealed that the kids who made their own contacts, reached out to people of their own age or slightly older, and sold themselves hard enough for those people to push for them to get an internship, did much better than those whose parents took their placement on as a project.

This is not to suggest that uncaring parents are what every kid needs. Abandonment on the side of a hill in a nappy has its limitations, as a child-rearing approach and is also a bit illegal. But it is to suggest that the capacity to stand back and say “go for it yourself” is an important gesture of parental empowerment.

“Every time we rescue, hover, or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy of our trust,” says Jessica Lahey in her wonderful recent book, The Gift of Failure.

“Further, we teach them to be dependent on us and thereby deny them the very education in competence we are put here on this earth to hand down. But here’s the truth, what research has shown over and over again: Children whose parents don’t allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated, and ultimately less successful than children whose parents support their autonomy."


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