Thursday, December 8, 2011

Childhood's End

In WWII, young men in their late teens and early 20's were asked to do heroic things - that involved maturity, responsibly and extreme danger.   Today, we can barely ask kids to wipe their noses.  Childhood has been extended to about age 30, for our generation.  Why is this?  Largely because it is affordable, and because keeping people passive and infantile makes them better consumers.  And probably because we have become a risk-averse nation.

When I look back at old WWII photos of bomber crews, it always amazes me that they put such young men in charge of such expensive equipment, sent them into terrifying danger, and gave them the responsibility for lives of many others.

Mark's Dad was a navigator on a B-17, and at the ripe old age of 24 was known as the "old man" on the ship, besting the Captain by a year.  Most of the crew were in their late teens or very early 20's.

Now, think of some teenager or 20-something you know today, and whether they could take on that kind of responsibility in life. I mean, many of these kids are just utterly silly today, acting like someone five years their junior.  Hopping up their Mom's Honda, smoking pot, living with their parents, and generally acting goofy.

Kids in college today are more like high-schoolers - and their educational levels are equivalent.  Many colleges are teaching "remedial" math and English to Freshmen, who haven't learned the basics of a High School education.  50-100 years ago, in this country, kids in High School learned Greek, Latin, and higher math.  Today, math is optional, and you'd be lucky to get a few courses in Spanish.  We have dumbed-down our curriculum considerably.

Its part of this whole "perpetual childhood" deal that has been pawned off on our generation.  Our elders want to keep us down and keep us as kids, for as long as possible.

The drinking age was raised to 21, just as I turned 19.  Legal one day, illegal the next!  When I was a kid, the drinking age was 18, which meant that if you wanted to, you could start drinking at age 15.  Is this a good idea?  Probably not.  But making drinking illegal for teens only served to delay the process.  College Deans now complain about this - kids go nuts their freshman year, getting booze at Fraternity parties, and promptly flunking out.  The wild partying of their youth doesn't go away, it just gets delayed.   Some College Deans are calling for lowering the drinking age as a result!

We now restrict (or are talking about restricting) driver's licenses until age 18 - or later!  Every month, we are treated to another article that sets forth the intellectually dishonest premise that if we restrict driving by teens, we will reduce the number of accidents.  The flawed thinking here is that since teens have a higher accident rate, if we just stop them from driving altogether, the accident rate will go down.  Nice theory.  But it makes no sense.

All it does, is, like the drinking situation, delay the process.  We extend childhood into the 20's further, and then instead of teen accidents, we have 20-something accidents.  If we treat people as immature, amazingly, they act immature.

As a result, college has become the new High School.  Young people learn to read and write and do math, for the first time in College.  Graduate school is now the new college - you need a graduate degree to get jobs that used to require only an undergraduate degree.

Kids today are acting immature well into their 20's, going on drinking binges, partying, etc. - all promoted by the media, of course.  Most are putting off marriage until the 30's and putting off kids until the 40's (with fertility treatments, natch!).  This is not totally their fault, it is only the response to the way they have been raised.  Protected and shielded from even the tiniest of risk, they react to the way they are treated - they live up to their parents' and elders' expectations.

We are infantilizing an entire generation!

Living with Mom and Dad and having them (or Grandma or Grandpa) pay off our student loans, etc. is part of this deal.  Parents love to lord over the ruined lives of their kids these days. Keeping a 30-year-old stoner son in the basement, like a pet, is the new status symbol.  As one friend of mine explained, "Well, he watches the dog when we travel, and he mows the lawn occasionally."  So, paying off your kids loans - and feeling obligated to do so, or doing so and putting yourself up on the cross, so you have something to complain about to your peers, is the new norm.

A poor norm, granted. But a popular one

So why is this infantalization taking place?  Several reasons, I think.  First, our younger generation is smaller than previous generations.  Thus, we want to keep them as kids longer, as we have fewer kids.    Sounds odd, but I think there is a nugget of truth to it.

Second we can afford this - or could, anyway.  As a wealthy country, we could delay the entry into adulthood for a decade or more, by keeping kids in grad school or in low-wage jobs, living at home and being "slackers" - leaving it to their 30's to decide what it is they really want to do in life.

And perhaps a third reason is that we are living longer than in the past.  50-100 years ago, life expectancy was maybe 65 years.  Today, it is easily 75.  And guess what?  Childhood is now extended by that same amount - about 10 years.

Is this a bad thing?  I think so, as it robs people of a significant portion of their lives.  In addition, young people today still have to make very serious decisions in their late teens and early 20's, and the childish mindset promoted by the older generation isn't helping.   We treat young people like children - and then act surprised when they act like them.  We give them no responsibly, let them take no risks, and then wonder why they are risk-averse and unable to decide - or if they do, they make poor, immature decisions.

For example, choosing a career, choosing a college, and financing college are deadly serious decisions these days.   You can't afford to blow a hundred grand on school and learn nothing more than how to play beer pong.  And yet many do.  We treat them like fools, so they act the fool.

How do you avoid this with your kids?  As a young adult, how do you avoid being coddled and end up a jackass 20-something?  Responsibility is, I think, the key.  Giving responsibility - and taking it.

Parents have to learn to trust their kids, to teach them responsibility and let them make mistakes.  We don't do this anymore, it seems.   We are so afraid of everything today - a fear spread by the TeeVee - that most kids don't even play outside anymore, unsupervised.

It is a far cry from 1967.  As a 7-year-old, I was allowed to ride my Sting-Ray well over a mile to the candy store and buy candy for myself (usually with money purloined from Mother's purse).  There was no paranoid fear of being child-napped, even though we did watch "Stranger Danger" films in Kindergarten.  Today, people would scream bloody murder if a child was allowed that level of freedom.  They would call the parents "irresponsible" as happened recently to one New York City Mother, who let her 11-year-old take the subway alone to school.

And similarly, by age 16, I was driving a car, that I owned, and was working at a job, and dating girls (believe it or not) and drinking beer and learning a lot of hard lessons about life - and making a lot of stupid mistakes.  Were my parents being irresponsible giving me so much freedom?  People today would say so, and parents are being arrested for allowing their "underage" (19 year old) kids to drink at home.   People in France look at us and think we are idiots.  They serve wine to children, there.

Since then, the drinking age has risen, and now it is hard for a 16-year-old to drive himself to work, as he is viewed as a "risky driver".  At the same time, we cut Driver's Education from the curriculum, as some self-appointed "experts" say that it teaches nothing, and just not letting kids drive at ALL is a better approach.  Why not let NOBODY drive?  That would cut the accident rate further - and take the premise to its logical extreme.

What saved me, of course, was that at age 18, I cut my hair and went to work as a salaried employee of General Motors.  No one at the plant asked me if I could do something.  I was handed a job and told to do it - and if I failed or succeeded, it was on my own merits.  It was, in a way, like joining the military, which has a similar sink-or-swim philosophy.

On occasion I would see my friends from High School, and the contrast was deep.   They were still kids, partying and "hanging out" and living with their parents in the summer.  They were basically doing High School 2.0 in College, only with more pot, beer, and sex.  Yea, it was a lot of fun, but gee, getting a job after graduation was tough.

Whereas for me, I already had a job, and the idea of entering the job market for the first time at age 22 seemed, well, foreign to me.  Applying for your first job at age 22?  Weird!

I doubt we can change the mamby-pamby mindset in this country today, when it comes to our young people.   I met the Mother that started Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and her story was a very sad one.  And that sort of story outweighs, emotionally, the logic on the other side.   But we can't just put teens into stasis modules until they turn 30, and then hope they will grow up.  Because all we do, by doing that, is delay their adolescence by that many years.

And yea, responsibility entails risk.  And people will get hurt, or even die.  But the alternative - to try to make us "safe" is to kill off our entire culture.  You can "safe" yourself to death.   But I doubt the current climate of hysteria will die down anytime soon - unless we start sending young people off to wars again (an amazing number of people in Iraq and Afghanistan were in their 30's and 40's  - and almost elderly army!).

On a personal level, you, as a parent or as a young person, can do much to help your own situation.  Give your kids responsibility - and let them make mistakes.  They will.  Horrendous mistakes.  Try to shield them from the worst - where they might end up dead or injured.  But you can't protect them from everything, nor should you try to.  Life is messy and dangerous, and people who are trained from birth to be risk-averse will never succeed in life, except as passive consumers.

(But this is another aspect of the problem - our legal system.  Today if a teenager gets into trouble with law, our "zero tolerance" environment insures that he will be marked for life by one bad choice.   Not long ago, children were treated much differently by our court system!)

We may think we are protecting your kids, but what you are really doing is smothering them.  Put a futon in the basement now, they'll be crashing there for the next 20 years....

As a young person, try to break free from the cocoon that parents, adults, and educational institutions try to thrust upon you - as well as the norms of your immature peers.  Do things that require responsibility - seek such opportunities out.  Take the hard courses, get a part-time job, and take your career and education seriously.

I only wished I had done so more.  While I had great opportunities thrown my way in life, I squandered many of them.  I failed, early and often - even flunking out of school.  But, I learned more from that failure than I have ever learned from success.  I learned that it was not the end of the world, and moreover that the world could be an unforgiving place.   Unlike school, which was all-too-willing to coddle and insulate me from failure and even my own malfeasance, the world will drop you on your ass, if you don't hold up your end of the deal.

Of course, there are some in this country who think that is an awful thing - and that the government should be there to extend this cocoon perpetually into adulthood.  They think having a job is a "right" and if you fail in life, then Uncle Sam should just cut you a check and tell you to go home and watch TV.

And maybe that explains the neo-Socialism of the "Occupy" crowd.  These are the young kids raised in today's paranoid parenting environment.  They have never failed at anything in life, as they have not been allowed to.  And as such, they have never really succeeded.  They go off to school, fill in all the dots with a Number 2 pencil, and then assume a job is at the end of the pipeline.

Not having experienced real risk, real failure, real responsibility, they have no clue about the real world.  So there they sit, camped out in a park, wondering what went wrong - and demand, like a petulant spoiled child, that their student loans be paid off and that someone give them a job.

Don't fall into that trap.   It is a dead-end.