As I often seem to do these days, I have once again started a blog series, then found cause to interrupt it for a moment of introspection that only tangentially relates to science and religion. But in the spirit of inclusiveness evinced by my one‑time editor at Analog magazine (Stan Schmidt, who retired this past year), I will maintain that psychology and sociology are, too, science! And that what I’m about to say involves both faith and reason.
I want to consider adulthood.
In a culture where teenagers fight wars and the “mature audiences” warning label really means the content is probably the sort of sophomoric, elementary school bathroom humor that makes even my ten year old daughter cringe, what is adulthood?
There is a nineteen year old boy lying in a hospital bed in Boston right now, under arrest and heavy guard because of the havoc he and his older brother wrought, the death and hurt that they caused a major American city. All week, the authorities have referred to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a man. When I commented in a writer’s group that I didn’t consider a nineteen year old to be a man, a friend responded that when her son was nineteen, he hated being called a “boy” because guys younger than he were fighting and dying in wars.
The question that immediately struck me was: So, which situation needs changing—the idea that a nineteen year old is not yet an adult, or the idea that a nineteen year old should be called upon to fight and die as a matter of course for any cause?
There are days my ten year old insists she’s no longer a child. “I’m not a little girl, Mom,” she says, then moments later, is curled in my arms bewailing the fact that she’s growing up. She is comforted in that moment, by the realization that she still fits in my lap.
When I watch the moment of silence that NPR observes while showing photos of our war dead, my overriding thought is that these kids old should be home with their moms doing college homework or helping in the kitchen (maybe even cooking dinner), or being nagged to practice the guitar, or debating whether the family will watch Dr. Who or Grimm or Castle tonight, not out dying in a war. Don’t even get me started about what happens to someone at that impressionable age who is repeatedly subjected to the atrocities of war and then is expected to come home and just glide back into what is now an alien reality. I have a dear friend who counsels vets and their families, and the wreckage is horrific.
In this culture, we force our children to grow up suddenly and with few, if any, coming‑of‑age milestones. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard parents say they can hardly wait for their kid to turn eighteen so they are no longer responsible for them and can kick them out of the house. Often it’s said jokingly, but the joke is thin. One author (whose name I have forgotten) wrote a book about how the recent recession has caused families to have to take their kids back in and how rotten that is for the parents who’ve spent all this time working to obtain freedom from their kids. A number of high‑profile magazines (such as Forbes) have run articles on the trend of adult kids moving back in with their parents. There’s even a TV show dedicated to this part of the “American Dream” that tends to view it more as a nightmare. We consider a man who lives at home after eighteen “odd”, weak or a failure, we make slacker jokes about these guys.
Other cultures don’t have this shared obsession about independence. My son (27) and his wife live with us, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, recession or no. As I write this, he sits across the room, doing his homework, having just returned from school where he’s studying to get a teaching credential. My daughter‑in‑law is studying to become a nurse. My middle child is off at college back east and lives with us when she’s off from school. We Skype almost daily and she is not shy about voicing the opinion that while being on her own is okay and all that, she’d rather be home with us. When she is home, she works as a personal assistant for a PR firm CEO. She is not dependent, neither is my son. They have activities and responsibilities outside the family that sometimes make juggling our schedules a challenge.
What they are is interdependent. All of us understand that this model of interdependence is one that works and is, in microcosm, what our communities, our nation, and our world could be in macrocosm if we were not so focused on the American model of independence. A model which seems, in many ways, to have backfired and created a society in which the government is trying to figure out how it can replace the frayed elements of our social structure that we have—for reasons too complex to go into here—severed.
Part of my skepticism about the American model of adulthood and coming‑of-age is that we seem to expect our children to be children until ping! the Coming‑of‑Age Fairy bops them with a high school diploma and confers upon them instant adulthood. There are few, if any, coming of age rituals in this culture and the ones that exist seem to speak to the most ephemeral aspects of growing up (one can drink, drive, and see “adult” movies (oh, baby!). That high school diploma, or a high school pregnancy, or having to get a job because your family can’t survive without it, seem to be the extent of our maturation rites.
From my observations and discussions with other parents, I think a large part of the problem is how casual we are about our children’s education. Oh, not about math or science or other things you can learn by reading or going to school, but about how to think, and behave, and feel like an adult. My ten year old is following in my footsteps by fancying herself a social activist. She has recently moved from chatting with kids her age and younger about characters for their role playing games, to discussing topics such as spirituality, religion, and social issues with kids 12 to 16. She is very happy to share with me everything everyone says and what she says in return—indeed, she even discusses the issues with me—so I’m not too concerned that she will get in over her head. She has a very strong sense of her own identity and that, I think, is something that parents must work at cultivating and, too often, do not.
I think this is why parents are so shocked to discover their child is attending drunken parties, or smoking, or doing drugs, or have committed a crime that they would have thought impossible. Having kids isn’t for the faint of heart, or the uncommitted, or the hedonistic, or the merely distracted. If you want your child to have values, if you want them to value cultivating virtues such as honesty, kindness, empathy, courage, patience, wisdom—in a word, if you want them to have a strong sense of self and personal goals that will serve them no matter what curveballs the material world lobs at them—I believe you have to consciously teach them those things. You cannot assume they will learn it by watching you, or by going to school, or by reading, or by osmosis.
Remember, you are part of a culture that does not believe kids absorb violence from violent entertainment, or sexism from pornography, so if kids aren’t going to pick up vices by osmosis, then why would you expect them to pick up virtues that way, let alone be strongly disposed to prize them? With all three of our kids, we made a concerted and open effort to teach them to be—to be aware of what’s going on inside and outside, to take responsibility for what’s going on inside, to have goals that are focused on what sort of person they want to be, not on what sort of things they wanted to have. We have had a bedtime ritual of reading (fiction and non‑fiction), discussion and prayer with each of our kids and I have been very blunt in letting them know that I was doing it because I wanted them to have the tools to make good decisions and set goals in later life and because it was my job to do this.
It’s a small thing, but we have a series of coming of age rites in our family, starting with the Coffee Ceremony. At age twelve, you get your first cup of real coffee and can thereafter partake of adult conversation (and, in my childhood family, play cut-throat pinocle with the grown‑ups). At fifteen, you get a party at Feast (the Baha’i worship gathering), a Baha’i ring or necklace, a welcome meeting with the Local Spiritual Assembly, and a welcome letter and official Baha’i card from the National Spiritual Assembly. You are now a mature youth. Congratulations. After that, high school graduation and college, learning to drive, getting to vote in your first elections, and possibly being elected to a Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly are just part of the natural upward spiral. Somewhere in there—at least in our family—you have your first filk and your first filk concert at a convention.
Each of these steps includes more empowerment in the family and community and a new set of privileges and responsibilities. Through it all, the family is there so that, at no point, does the child feel alone in the world … or alone against the world. He or she does not fall through the cracks.
Our eighteen year old children suddenly being expected to be completely independent adults is in some ways uniquely American and of fairly recent vintage. The need for young, vigorous bodies to march into war necessitates viewing boys and girls this young as fully‑fledged adults.
This cultural “norm” has ramifications in other aspects of society that we may not connect to it. Consider, for example, the fact that women in developing countries are finding it easier to juggle motherhood and career than women here in the US. They are not penalized for motherhood as we are by having to make “tough choices” that necessitate putting off childrearing or losing career equity. The reason? In these less modernized countries, the extended family unit has not been shredded as it has here. Women in these countries have a built-in support network that women in the US have to purchase.
This, of course, cascades into the way we structure government-run programs geared to aid the children of working parents. It cascades into the choices that women and married couples have to make about having children as opposed to having careers. It cascades into the fate of the elders in our society and how well or how poorly we care for them and avail ourselves of their hard‑earned wisdom. In fact, I wonder if there is any aspect of society that does not feel the impact of our expectation that young adults—just coming out of the most chaotic years of their lives in terms of bodily and emotional change and disruption—should be ready to be alone in and against the world.
And this brings me back to a hospital room in Boston, where a 19 year old boy, who should be doing his homework and arguing about what movie to go to this weekend, is instead alone against the world and struggling with the reality that he contributed to the deaths of four innocent human beings.
Here is my prayer: that parents will be conscious of their children, and conscious of what they are teaching them every single day.