The third ingredient in the rise of adolescence is the expression of parental wishfulness. Teenagers are not the only ones who pursue an extension of their immaturity, since they could not pursue it without permission. Many parents themselves are heavily to blame for the current state of adolescent immaturity in our culture whether they intended to promote it or not. Consider the following.
Most parents hope that their kids will have it easier than they did. This is perhaps a natural desire. It is not hard to imagine an immigrant family fifty years ago whose kids had to work long hours just to help the family make ends meet. Almost no one wants their children to “have” to work. But remember that relatively few families in the nineteenth century (and before) were financially able to let their teenagers become a leisured class engaged exclusively in preparation for adulthood that was many years off. Still there was an increasing belief among parents that this goal was ideal, and this belief became an important ingredient in the rise of the idea of the teenager. After all, shouldn’t we just let kids play?
Not only that, but most parents hope that their kids will make a better living than they did. This is really just an extension of the first idea, since “better living” is almost always defined in financial terms. And if the ideal way to spend one’s youthfulness is at play then of course the ideal way to spend one’s adulthood must also be to play…just with more expensive toys.
But even though my description of this pursuit of “play” may be a little extreme, this parental wishfulness will at least express itself in wishing for higher pay with less hours for their young person. And how will their student get this ideal job? The answer, we’re told, is obvious: by attending better high schools, getting superior grades, in order to receive acceptance to a prestigious university, resulting in a higher paying job.
Though this scenario may not be entirely unreasonable, we should at least consider the possibility that deferring responsibility now in hopes of having a higher paying responsibility later is not a guaranteed progression. In many ways just the opposite is true. More schooling does not invariably breed more maturity. As we’ve already seen, our public education system tends toward the dumbing down of youth not the enhancing of their youthful capabilities. The more time a student spends isolated from the “real world,” the more likely their adjustment to real work may be slow if not spurned. And an employer is not likely to hand over a lot of green to those who are still green themselves.
Isn’t that why employers typically prefer job experience over institutional education? Though one’s training in school may be an asset, the diploma itself is rarely the watershed between economic success or financial failure. Please understand that I wholeheartedly agree that everyone needs an education, but how they get that education may be different.
By the way, the above discussion assumes that “better living” is equivalent to making more money. That, of course, is a myth beyond the scope of this blog, and one that John Piper attempts to shred in his book, Don’t Waste Your Life. I heartily recommend that for your reading whether you are a student or a parent.
One additional element of this parental wishfulness seems to be that most parents hope that their kids will be more accepted or popular among their peers than they were. Moms and dads remember their own humiliation of wearing the wrong thing and their own rejection by other kids. And so parents support adolescence with their money. “The largest source of funding for youth culture is parents. Even though they may be appalled by specific manifestations of youth culture, they often accept its validity, or at least its inevitability” (Hine, 226). So youth culture is often funded by parents all for the sake of avoiding their student’s loss of self-esteem.
This wishfulness has drastically changed our environment. The expectations many parents have for their young people have shifted, and instead of anticipating the quick arrival of maturity they assume its indefinite absence. Instead of enabling their young people to develop into grown-ups they have endowed them with permission to put off the pressure of development until some undefined future time. In attempting to protect their young person from the difficulties of life they inadvertently prolong their child’s inability to deal with those difficulties.