Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Growing Up Too Fast

People often say to me, "kids grow up too fast these days."

This concept doesn't bear up under scrutiny. First, because the world has always been overpopulated by kids that grew up too fast. There are 6 year-olds making bricks in India and "oriental" rugs in Pakistan. Eleven year-old girls are still being married off in India, Bangladesh and assorted other places. Families are chicken-scratching the dirt around their huts in various villages, trying to get enough food to sustain themselves.

Twenty years ago, I frequented a taqueria in my neighborhood. Most of the time, the cash register was managed by a girl so small and young, she had to stand on a step stool in order to reach the keys and cash drawer. At perhaps age 8 or 9, she was quite adept at handling money accurately.

I was babysitting my sisters while my parents went out by the time I was 12. By 14, I was babysitting neighborhood kids and at 15 I had a "real job" working on a farm after school and weekends.

So, what actually prompts the observation that "kids grow up too fast,
these days"?  The behavior that elicits this comment appears to actually be detachment from family. It's not that the kids are more mature, or more responsible, or have gained in understanding of the world around them. It's that they've retreated into solipsistic worlds dominated by rapid self-gratification and conscious rejection of family ties.

We think of being "grown up" as being self-sufficient; and the kid engrossed in rapid fire texting has that superficial appearance of such. After all, she's mastered a fairly complex tool and wields it with real skill. But, too often, that kid cannot come to grips with the basics of taking out the garbage, emptying the dishwasher or putting her clean laundry away. And she can't come to grips with the basics of interpersonal responsibility, either. By which I mean, being respectful to and of other people.

Family is the core interpersonal structure for children. Good or bad. The most mature children I see are not the ones who are left to make their own decisions as much as possible. They're the ones who have been given the most structure and guidance in learning how to make good decisions; which would seem to me to be the only way for them to learn to tell the difference between good and bad.

But it's a lot of work. You keep telling yourself that you are doing this for the long term results; but sometimes, some short-term positive feedback would be -- well, nice. You have to keep on the lookout for the small things. Like, when one of the girls calls me "dad" and forgets to self-correct; or puts me in her contact list as "Meister." Or buys me a Christmas present that she knows I'll like. Or surprises me in my office with breakfast.

When she was five years old, Reyna could cook us toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, by herself. That's not being grown up; that's acquiring a skill or better, a set of skills. Being grown up is a complex interaction of skills which we use to manage our time, our relations to other people and a whole interlocking set of economic, spiritual and social behaviors; manage them in such a way that we feel good, the others around us feel good, and the world is a better place for having us in it.

In that light, I'm not all that grown up, myself. I guess it's not a point of arrival, but an aspiration. You don't get up one day and look in the mirror at a "grownup." You lose your temper, or one sock in the laundry, and realize you're not there yet. Buckle down and have at it. It's not too late.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points.
    I've always thought it odd that we start expecting children as young as infants to be 'independent' and 'figure things out themselves'. Often not for the right reasons. There's more to it than that, though. Kids need guidance during that process, and connection to their family. We value children's perceived independence or self sufficiency to the end that we end up being too 'hands off'. The end result seems to be kids with no empathy or interest in the lives of others.