Adults who are overly demanding routinely criticize children for not being more adult. The expectations these men and women have are too high and too immediate for children to live up to for the simple reason that they are adult standards.
There’s nothing wrong with appropriately high standards. Little kids can toddle; most can’t run. Hormone-challenged young adolescents can use their heads beautifully; most don’t reason effectively 100% the time—not yet, though as every parent knows it’s just a matter of time, health, and training…oh, wait, come to think of it, I don’t reason effectively 100% of the time, so….
I never heard an adult criticize a toddler for not being able to run. I guess there’s something about the size and shape of those little bodies that tells us it’s too soon for sprinting. By the same token, maybe something about the size and shape of adolescent bodies sometimes fools adults into expecting and demanding too much, too soon.
Adolescence is an inflection point—a period when people embody both the child and the adult in them. A teenager can be startlingly grown-up about one thing and strikingly childish about the next. I once shot an interview in the bedroom of an alcohol-abusing 14-year-old. As she told stories of blackouts and close calls, plush toys looked on from a shelf behind her. The harrowing tales and stuffed animals were both true expressions of her life at that moment.
This Jekyll and Hyde quality is why once upon a time, the State of Florida required extensive driver education and testing before entrusting me with a machine capable of hurtling down the highway at speeds in excess of eighty miles an hour. Okay, I was driving an 11-year-old VW Karmann Ghia with a top speed of 50mph on a downhill straightaway—had there actually been a sustained downhill straightaway in Florida. But you get the point: We require evidence of reasonably serious intent, judgment and skill before we hand over the keys.
In a similar vein, we seek to limit access to alcoholic beverages and most other psychoactive substances by children and adolescents not because we’re holding out on them but because the medical evidence suggests these intoxicants may disrupt adolescent development—and nobody want to prolong the transition into full functioning adulthood.
It’s a bind. When kids start looking grown up, some adults start demanding grown-up perceptions and skills from them. The kids would like to deliver, they just may not be able to do so—at least not consistently. When adults are impatient in their demands, kids often bluff. Smoking cigarettes, drinking at parties, driving fast, accelerated sexual behavior—these all may be as much about bluffing as anything else.
A man called Clancy, famous in Alcoholics Anonymous, described having his first drink as a boy because the men he was around just assumed he would join them. Clancy said he drank himself to near-oblivion for the next thirty years because drinking made him feel like other men looked. That’s bluffing driven to the limits.
By the time kids are paying much attention, most parents have specialized to the point their children seldom see them fail. One parent may balance the checkbook because she’s better at it. Or maybe she’s better household repairs (I’m looking at you, Susan…thanks!). The adults divvy up cooking, laundry—everything in fact—along lines of competence and comfort.
My heartfelt sympathies go to single parents who don’t get to specialize. I know that’s not easy. That said, living as a teenager in a single-parent home helped me understand that no one is omni-competent—nobody does everything with ease all the time.
If you’re a single parent, consider how to demonstrate trial and error learning to your child in areas where adequacy is the best you can muster. You may have that opportunity even if you’re not single. Neither my wife nor I ever showed much aptitude in financial dealings. After decades of shame about that, I worked to attain a level of adequacy that I am moderately-not-dissatisfied with. Thankfully, our daughter seems to be more clever about money than either of us—due I think to a recessive gene in her mother’s DNA and maybe a little bit to watching us struggle to learn something that didn’t come naturally. In any event, none of us is bluffing about our financial wizardry these days so everyone is reasonably understanding of mistakes and wildly enthusiastic about successes.
Single, married, smart as a whip, dumb as dirt: We all start from where we are. What else can we do? The nice thing is, when we do our best with what we have, our kids get a realistic peek into adulthood. And that ain’t all bad.
I don’t like it a bit when adults treat teenagers like children. But in my estimation, demanding more than people can possibly deliver is even more toxic than under-challenging them. In a reasonably healthy environment kids will rise to life’s challenges. Children want to learn and grow because learning and growing are stimulating and fun. But real learning and growth are retarded in an overly demanding environment where failure is intolerable. If failure is unacceptable, trial and error learning is right out as a learning strategy and kids resort to bluffing, compliance, docile repetition, and playing it safe. What could be less challenging, and ultimately more useless than that?
— from Raising Adults
— from Raising Adults