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.
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:
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.
- Completing school
- Leaving home
- Financial independence
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."