Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rites of Passage

Stairs Leading Upwards by Adam Hickmott

An article in  NY Times Magazine asks the question my husband I ponder daily, "What is UP with these kids?"

Last night, at the tranquil lake house we've rented for the week, my younger son talked me into letting four of his friends sleep over.

"Mom, they've been drinking all day and we have a large tent and they'll sleep on the lawn."  It was 7pm.

The lawn is at the rear of the house, dropping down to the lake.  There's a fire pit and plenty of room to pitch a tent.  I thought for a moment how much I didn't want them there but knew I had to give in because they had, indeed, been swilling beer all day long.  No responsible parent would send them on their way despite their just-barely-over 21 year old status.

I had been reluctant to allow them down to the lake house for just this reason.  I envisioned them drinking all day while hanging in the sun, waterskiing and wakeboarding behind our boat, getting too trashed to leave.  I told my sons we were not making dinner and they'd have to make their own.  They offered to go to the store, buy the food, come back and grill for everyone.  So I relented.

They left @ 7:30pm.  By 9:15pm they still weren't back and nobody was answering their cell.  My husband was convinced they'd been busted or run into a tree.  I was more optimistic thinking they had probably gone to smoke a joint and were dazedly trying to grocery shop.

We left the house & went to a pizza place & had our dinner.   They called twice.  Once to ask where we had gone and why (duh) and a second time, during our meal, to ask if we'd "pick up some ice on the way back."

What for?" my husband asked.

"We need it for our gin & tonics."

Wrong answer.  Finding a place to buy gin was, as it turned out, is what took them so long.  They didn't know where to buy hard liquor in the state of Maine.  New England states have different liquor laws.  NH has state run stores.  Maine doesn't.

Needless to say we did not pick up any ice; which brings me back to commentary in the Times article.

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.
In tribal societies, maturity, adulthood, whatever they call it, occurs in the teens; often at the age of fourteen.   Rites of passage in any society are ritualistic or symbolic events that mark changing from one status to another.  According to sociologists, there are five milestones that define transition to adulthood: 
  1. Completing school
  2. Leaving home
  3. Financial independence
  4. Marriage
  5. Children
This well-written article asks about the mixed message of extending adolescent privileges to young adults in their twenties. 
People can vote at 18, but in some states they don’t age out of foster care until 21. They can join the military at 18, but they can’t drink until 21. They can drive at 16, but they can’t rent a car until 25 without some hefty surcharges. If they are full-time students, the Internal Revenue Service considers them dependents until 24; those without health insurance will soon be able to stay on their parents’ plans even if they’re not in school until age 26, or up to 30 in some states. Parents have no access to their child’s college records if the child is over 18, but parents’ income is taken into account when the child applies for financial aid up to age 24. We seem unable to agree when someone is old enough to take on adult responsibilities. But we’re pretty sure it’s not simply a matter of age.
Interestingly, the article pinpoints the "adolescent" stage as a recent phenomenon dating to 1904 with "the publication of the massive study 'Adolescence' by G. Stanley Hall, prominent psychologist and first president of the American Psychological Association." 
Child-labor laws kept children under 16 out of the work force, and universal education laws kept them in secondary school, thus prolonging the period of dependence — a dependence that allowed them to address psychological tasks they might have ignored when they took on adult roles straight out of childhood.
Inotherwords, children did not experience adolescence until they were free of the child labor imposed upon them.  They finally had an opportunity to "transition" from childhood to adulthood.
He (Hall) cited the “curve of despondency” that “starts at 11, rises steadily and rapidly till 15 . . . then falls steadily till 23,” and described other characteristics of adolescence, including an increase in sensation seeking, greater susceptibility to media influences (which in 1904 mostly meant “flash literature” and “penny dreadfuls”) and overreliance on peer relationships.
 And so went the popular thinking for many decades to come.

In 1991, the National Institute for Mental Health began studying some 5,000 children ages 3 to 16.  They found children's brains were not fully developed until 25.  Thus, their growth, or emergence into adulthood might be considered a physiological result aided by their parents, society and cultural expectations.  The article refers back to the forty year old articles by Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston who wrote:
"a growing minority of post-adolescents [who] have not settled the questions whose answers once defined adulthood: questions of relationship to the existing society, questions of vocation, questions of social role and lifestyle.” Whereas once, such aimlessness was seen only in the “unusually creative or unusually disturbed,” he wrote, it was becoming more common and more ordinary in the baby boomers of 1970. Among the salient characteristics of “youth,” Keniston wrote, were “pervasive ambivalence toward self and society,” “the feeling of absolute freedom, of living in a world of pure possibilities” and “the enormous value placed upon change, transformation and movement”
These themes have been picked up by Jeffrey Arnett, psychology professor at Clark University, Worcester, MA, coincidentally the same college of which G. Stanley Hall was the first president.  In 2000, Arnett declared the "youth" stage of Keniston to be a new stage in life which he labels emerging adulthood.  The themes are similar to previous studies and Arnett has spent ten years making his case which, apparently boils down to "the age thirty deadline":
...the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made.
So, back to the twenty somethings in my yard...does this explain my frustration with their behaviour and my ongoing wish they would all "get a life"?  Yes and no.  I'm sympathetic but I no longer want to provide the life they seek.  I want them to find their way and they must do it on their own. 

As my parents liked to say, "We have given you the tools.  It's time for you to make use of them."


Ruth said...

I just read the article this morning and was very intrigued myself. Our 27-year-old son is living at home temporarily (how temporarily I don't know).

I would have been fearful too, not hearing from them, so good for you that you were able to imagine another scenario. I'm getting there.

I'm definitely with you, that regardless of what has gotten this generation of kids into this slow motion rise to adulthood, I say let them figure it out, we've already given the tools. Amen, sister!

Grandmother said...

In tribal or indigenous societies, preparations are made, the skills of adulthood are taught and time alone is provided to seek the vision needed to find one's personal way for this phase. Then, once all this is accomplished, the rites of passage are celebrated to proclaim each person's transition which is accepted by the whole society.
Our society offers no such preparation (other then school), no skill enumeration or building, no vision quest or rite of passage. All those different ages for different activities that you listed shows we can't even agree on what the age of adulthood should be. Surely, we're partly responsible for the outcomes you describe. What's a young person to do? Looks like they'll set their own timetable which may or may not match their parents.
Good, thought provoking post!

Megan said...

Oh thank you for this post. So many bits and pieces of this have been burgeoning in my brain. I'm going to have to read it again and check all the links as well...

The Good Cook said...

I found your blog via Nancy at Life in the second half. This is a thoughtful, well written post. Thank you. Much to think about as my own children begin leaving the nest... (only to return?) We'll see.

Baino said...

Ah loved this but what a conundrum. I have a totally independent 25 year old at home who chooses to be here because it helps her hoard money although she's leaving home around Christmas. Another is 23 and about to get engaged but still at home and doesn't have the financial wherewithall to leave. I love having them home. They pay board, do chores and are awesome company but when I look at Adam particularly, I was married and taking on a mortgage at his age. Was that right? I don't kno but it did make me responsible. Also research has recently found that young men particularly do not have the mental capacity to correctly guage 'risk' which is why so many do get into fights, car crashes etc. Although over here, adulthood is deemed at 18. At that age, you're legally responsible for yourself. Imagine! Today there will be a whole bunch of immature 18 year olds voting for the first time. I bet half of them will draw willies on their ballot papers.

Harnett-Hargrove said...

A well-crafted, thoughtful, frustrated post. I need to see into the links... I often wonder whether I am supplying the growing up tools or the stay at home tools.... -J

injaynesworld said...

18 is the "luggage birthday?"

I left home at 19 and it was sink or swim. As a result, I learned how to survive in this world and make my way on my own. A friend of mine who is still supporting her 26 year old daughter said to me, "Kids are so much less mature these days." Well, hell yeah! Where's their incentive to grow up.

Best thing you can do is kick their privileged little butts to the curb. If you've done your job, they'll be fine. If not, it's too late now.

Nancy said...

I'll have to go back and read this article. I focused on adolescence in college - we had to pick an age in human development and family studies. We have, indeed, created a very long adolescence in our society. We expect young people to not be sexual until they are married - but marriage has been put off until the mid to late twenties and sometimes longer. How normal can that be? We expect our children to go out on their own after they graduate from college, but the choices for jobs is next to none. The ones they can get are low paying without benefits. Without responsibilities - such as paying the bills, raising children - young people can drink and remain irresponsible as long as their parents are picking up the tab. No need not to go to bed early, because they don't have anything to get up for in the morning. And they will still eat at the end of the day.

I think we have to face some hard realities when it comes to our young people. I don't have all the answers, but I do believe they need to get up in the morning and go to work - even if it's low paying and unskilled. But more importantly, we need to realize that not all children are bound for college, and begin to look at schooling our children for things they can do right out of high school. What good is enormous college loans if one can't find a job in that field?

Great post!

California Girl said...

Ladies, thank you for taking the time to read this post. I was compelled to share. We have all gone through it but now, many are going through it again, with our own children. I get so tired of the small irritations. I know that's why God wants them out. On the other hand, what's out there?

I too left home at 19 to finish college in another city. LOVED being on my own (I worked 20+ hrs wkly in a coffee shop & paid my rent) and never went back. I took roommates, I bought re-treads (remember those), I went without. I didn't like being poor but I did like the independence.

My father, born 1910, was so worried I'd never be able to afford anything due to inflation. I feel the same way towards my children's future. But, life, somehow goes on.


by Cole Scott