Last week a commentor made the common observation that "Kids go up too fast nowadays" which made me cringe a bit.
While I'd agree that yes, children have sexuality thrown at them from every direction to the point that we see children having children (for the record, a bad thing) I'd also disagree and say that in fact nowadays children don't grow up fast enough--don't grow up at all in some cases.
With the invention of public education and the shift from farms to cities the 20th century presented a unique phenomenon: adolescence. It used to be that children were children then suddenly they were adults. You were bar or batmizvahed into adulthood either through religious ceremony, an apprenticeship or simply the expectation that you were now to provide for yourself as a man (or marry if you were a woman) but now we have this creature roaming amongst us called The Teenager, with a full-blown stage of growth dedicated to its preservation and contentment.
But it hasn't stopped there, you can see the creep that's occurring as we create new stages of human growth from preteens (or tweens) to catchy phrases like "Gen Y" or "Twenty-somethings." I can just picture my great-grandfather's face if he heard me referring to a 21 year-old male as anything but a . . . man.
You see the results of this shift in thinking everywhere. First we made age limits for drinking alcohol, then age limits for driving cars followed by age limits on getting jobs (even for something as simple as babysitting) followed by age requirements on car seats. If I didn't know better I'd say we're trying to make it illegal to grow up.
Over Christmas we watched the HBO docu-drama John Adams and dropped our jaws as the future president, John Quincey Adams, was apprenticed by his parents at age 14 to travel Europe as a private secretary. But by age 14 my own grandfather had left home and joined the military and by age 18 both my grandfathers were fighting the war in Europe--one already married to his 16 year-old sweetheart (they're still happily married today). Shocking, simply shocking.
Contrast that with the middle class Harry Potter/Twilight-loving, video game-playing, chauffeured child we have on our couches today. The one whose life is still managed by personal secretaries, coaches and pop culture, who sees no reason to get a job--even if the law allowed it--because he has an allowance and all his needs provided for. Many parents I know believe that teens shouldn't get jobs at all. Why? "Because teenagers only have this time once and they need to enjoy it."
Or if you wanted to be less anecdotal you could look at the numbers: consider the average age for marriage today compared to the rest of history--even for first marriages, which are starting to be viewed as a trial run (because we're not grown up enough to get it right the first time apparently). Look at the average age for having children, the average age for getting a driver's license, the average age for graduating from college (a four-year degree now takes a whopping six years to achieve), the number of adults living with parents in their 20's, the number of adults living with parents in their 30's, or the popularity of television shows and movies eulogizing childhood and youth, begging us to be "children at heart" (whatever that means?) and portraying adults as eternal adolescents, hanging out together and shunning the responsibilities that human beings used to have--until the 20th century and prosperity allowed them to forget them and just relax.
I guess some would ask "So what's the big deal? So what if people can be younger longer, isn't that a good thing?" To which I'd say. "Um . . . no."
What has all this extended childhood accomplished? What good has it done? It's only taught our children that the world revolves around them and that the rest of us are here for their pleasure. It's taught them that high school is the most important time of their lives (a terrifying thought) and to obsess about how they look and dress during this "critical" period to the point we have anorexia, bulimia, school shootings and all sorts of newly-invented teen traumas. It's allowed us to dumb things down and lower our expectations so that our children can get by with doing less while we hover and manipulate and obsess over their lives. It's caused us to worship youth and focus our attention and financial resources (i.e. spending your retirement savings on your children's education) on our children rather than teaching them to be responsible, to think of their elders or to respect age and wisdom as wiser cultures have done.
The Century of the Teenager only raised a generation of self-absorbed, pseudo-adults living at home, unmarried, dodging significant relationships in between their random couplings, playing video games into the morning hours and acting in all ways like twelve-year olds, craving entertainment and pleasure. They didn't label it the "Me Generation" for nothing and the situation is only sliding one direction on that slippery slope, folks.
So the question is: As a mother living in a world that glorifies eternal childhood and youth what can I do about it? Should I do anything about it? To be honest, there isn't much I can do--except within the walls of my own home. I can expect my children to pull their weight with the household chores, I can stop thinking of them as "children" and more as "adults in training." I can allow them privileges and responsibilities designed to help them become adults as soon as possible, I can speak with them about my expectations and reasons for why I do things, I can talk to them less as children and more as adults. I can teach them how to date, how to get a job, how to drive a car, how to shop at the store, how to balance a checkbook and manage their finances--and I can do this before they're 18 and expected to leave home. Or not leaving home, as the case may sadly be.
I suppose it comes down to this: Are we going to treat children as accessories to our vanity, cooing over them for twenty or thirty years in an effort to keep them dependent so we can vicariously relive our youths or are we going to treat them as individuals to whom we gave the gift of life accompanied by a responsibility to better the world? Because if we keep our offspring as children forever not only does it cripple them but we'll miss out on the chance of having an even fuller and deeper relationship with them--as adults.
Newt Gingrich (and I find myself chuckling that I'd actually reference him) had an article in Businessweek a year ago which I only now read after writing my own opinion on the matter titled Let's End Adolescence. You might find it interesting as well. Or irritating, depending on how you feel about what I've just said--but he's got more facts and figures than I do to back up what we both seem to say.
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