I've been reading a lot about the modern idea of extending childhood. I've concluded that although I don't agree with doing it, the culture makes it difficult to go against it, college being the primary vehicle for forcing it upon the populace. Most of the alternatives to college, like apprenticeships and family farms, have disappeared. I also realize that the use of birth control and the social acceptance of co-habitation play a major role in allowing young people to prolong childhood by avoiding the responsibility associated with marrying and raising children.
In John Taylor Gatto's book, The Underground History of American Education, he makes the point that in early America, youth in their teen years, some even as young as 12, were treated as adults and acted as adults and that their energy, courage, and skill were a huge part of what made this country thrive. Once he brought this to my attention, I started noticing it in biographies I was reading--and not just American ones. For instance, I noticed it in William Bollaert's Texas. The introduction says that at the age of 13, Mr. Bollaert, an Englishman,
"was permitted to enter the Royal Institution as a laboratory assistant in chemistry, with Michael Faraday, assistant and later professor, and with Sir Humphrey Davy, an occasional visitor. In this field he was competent enough, while still in his teens, to make some original discoveries in benzoic acid, and to publish his results in the Journal of the Royal Institution in 1823-24."
At 18 he traveled alone to Peru to work as an assayer and chemist.
Now we are at the point where even people in their 20s are not considered adults. The Psychology Today interview, Trashing Teens, with Psychologist Robert Epstein, gives compelling evidence why we should not do this. In the article, Epstein gives the results of research he did with fellow psychologist Diane Dumas:
You believe in the inherent competence of teens. What's your evidence?"
Dumas and I worked out what makes an adult an adult. We came up with 14 areas of competency—such as interpersonal skills, handling responsibility, leadership—and administered tests to adults and teens in several cities around the country. We found that teens were as competent or nearly as competent as adults in all 14 areas. But when adults estimate how teens will score, their estimates are dramatically below what the teens actually score.
Other long-standing data show that teens are at least as competent as adults. IQ is a quotient that indicates where you stand relative to other people your age; that stays stable. But raw scores of intelligence peak around age 14-15 and shrink thereafter. Scores on virtually all tests of memory peak between ages 13 and 15. Perceptual abilities all peak at that age. Brain size peaks at 14. Incidental memory—what you remember by accident, and not due to mnemonics—is remarkably good in early to mid teens and practically nonexistent by the '50s and '60s.
At the extreme, some parents never treat their children as adults. Family counselor and author Gary Lundberg says in his book, I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better, that
"in many families, tradition has dictated that children, no matter the age, are to be seen and not heard. Parents are the possessors of all knowledge and wisdom. Children remain children until the parents die, and until that time the children are to look to the parents as all-wise and all-knowing. The children are to accept and follow the parents' counsel without question. These are extreme ideas and yet, to some degree, they exist in most families. This attitude is stifling to personal growth and does not show respect and understanding."
He goes on to assert that by not letting them solve their own problems, we contribute to them "not becoming responsible adults". That makes perfect sense to me. We have to let them "go into the woods" so to speak.
And the results of fostering this Neverland? Joseph Epstein explains it well in this Weekly Standard column he wrote several years ago:
"Time for the perpetual adolescents is curiously static. They are in no great hurry: to succeed, to get work, to lay down achievements. Perhaps this is partly because longevity has increased in recent decades--if one doesn't make it to 90 nowadays, one feels slightly cheated--but more likely it is that time doesn't seem to the perpetual adolescent the excruciatingly finite matter, the precious commodity, it indubitably is. For the perpetual adolescent, time is almost endlessly expandable. Why not go to law school in one's late thirties, or take the premed requirements in one's early forties, or wait even later than that to have children? Time enough to toss away one's twenties, maybe even one's thirties; 40 is soon enough to get serious about life; maybe 50, when you think about it, is the best time really to get going in earnest."
The old hunger for life, the eagerness to get into the fray, has been replaced by an odd patience that often looks more like passivity. In the 1950s, people commonly married in their twenties, which may or may not have been a good thing, but marriage did prove a forcing house into adulthood, for men and women, especially where children issued from the marriage, which they usually did fairly quickly. I had two sons by the time I was 26, which, among other things, made it impossible, either physically or spiritually, for me to join the general youth movement of the 1960s, even though I still qualified by age. It also required me to find a vocation. By 30, one was supposed to be settled in life: wife, children, house, job--"the full catastrophe," as Zorba the Greek liked to say. But it was also a useful catastrophe. Today most people feel that they can wait to get serious about life. Until then one is feeling one's way, still deciding, shopping around, contributing to the formation of a new psychological type: the passive-nonaggressive."
This quote does not discuss the parents of the perpetual adolescent. I wonder if the author noticed as I have that many parents encourage their children to get the long string of degrees, to wait to marry, to travel the world, etc. I've even heard parents recommend to their children that they not only wait to start their families and instead enjoy a several-years long "honeymoon" but that they limit the number of children to one or two as if this will make the marriage more stable and the family more successful. These parents seem to expect that maturity will come by delaying and decreasing responsibility, instead of taking it on.
I think the Mormons have kept the traditional perspective. They send their young men off on a year-long mission as soon as they finish high school, forcing them to not only break from Mommy and Daddy but to stand on their own two feet. Furthermore, their church leadership teaches the youth to "get on with it", to marry and have lots of babies as soon as possible, even while still in college. It seems to work for them, but then some of the best books I have found for learning how to make these kinds of choices sucessfully are written by Mormons: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Fascinating Womanhood and Man of Steel and Velvet--even I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better.