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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am a mom to two boys: “Will,” who is 20, and “James,” who is 18. James has always been a nice, shy, rule-following kiddo. A bit of a goody-two-shoes, even. I always assumed that at some point, James would break out of his shell and rebel. However, that hasn’t ever happened and now I’m wondering if I should be worried.
James is a first-year at the same college his brother attends. I’ve been trying to encourage Will to bring James to parties with him and get him to enjoy himself and make the most of all that college has to offer. Unfortunately, Will says that James isn’t interested. Instead, James seems to focus on his schoolwork and G-rated hobbies like reading and playing the piano. He has a thing for a guy in one of his classes, but is too nervous to approach him. I don’t think he’s ever gotten drunk or high or had sex.
I look back on my own college years and have fond memories of the freedom of student life. I’m sad that James might not have those same experiences. I’m also slightly worried, because it’s normal and healthy for kids his age to rebel. It makes me wonder if there’s something I should be concerned about. Could he be depressed? Have we not done enough as parents to ensure that it is safe and encouraged for him to rebel? Is he just a late bloomer?
— Too Good to Be True?
Dear Too Good,
Of course James could be depressed or struggling somehow, but I think it would manifest in ways other than sobriety and a general aversion to parties. You probably need more than “he’s not a partier” and secondhand (kinda biased?) info from his more outgoing big brother to assume depression. It also feels like a leap to assume that his lack of partying means he hasn’t had sex, gotten drunk, or had any other experiences outside his dorm room! How does he sound when you actually see and talk with him? Does he have friends, people he cares about and hangs out with? Are his grades okay? Does he have pursuits he enjoys? Does he sound content?
It could be that James is a late bloomer. It could just be that he likes different things than you did at his age, and different things than his brother. And, okay, maybe he’s not a rebel, but it’s worth noting that rebellion can look a lot of different ways. One way could be not doing exactly what your parents expected you to do, or not following in the footsteps of your older brother who goes to your same school.
Listen to James, try to understand what’s really going on in his life from a distance, and try not to continually compare him to his brother or a younger version of yourself if you can help it. If you notice some red flags, by all means follow up. But without more evidence, I think it’s safe to assume that he’s carving his own path—maybe he’s just doing it a bit more quietly.