Today, Ellyn vonHuben offers a very interesting commentary on a recent New York Times feature about the cultural phenomenon of prolonged adolescence. Read what she has to say here:
When my father died I took the Marine Corps dog tag that had always been on his key chain.
I carried it on my key chain for a while and today it sits in my jewelry box and I still look at it from time to time.
Dad engraved his initials and date of enlistment on the back: 7/8/42.
The date was one month and one day after his seventeenth birthday.
My youngest son will be seventeen in December, and I worry when he jumps on his bike to run a few blocks to our local equivalent of the Kwik-E-Mart to purchase an energy drink that may contain high fructose corn syrup. Yes,
the Kwik-E-Mart - not Parris Island, Cherry Point, Espiritu Santo and other places, foreign and domestic, that were written on the duffle bag that, by 1962, was used to haul home dirty laundry on family vacations. That was the common arc of maturity of the parents of the baby boomers.
Expectations of grown-up behavior at seventeen; suburban life with kids and dog by 37.
History has seen many occasions when trying times called for people to grow up quickly. I don’t mean to imply that we need despots to do youth a favor by putting them in harm’s way. I am simply presenting this rambling preamble for context and contrast as I wonder about the way young people in our time - indeed, young people in my house - are growing up very slowly.
A New York Times article, Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer, from June of this year is an example of the recent of crop of literature acknowledging the trend of the protracted adolescence. We have all heard of hot house children and their helicopter parents - those doting moms and dads so heavily invested in the lives of their children long past the point of sanity.
I feel much better about my parenting having read of parents who move along with the children when they go off to college - to hover about the details of their education and take care of domestic, so that college becomes a de facto extension of high school life that will expand to include adult vices with little chance to grow in adult virtue. Then, there are the parents who actually attempt to act as negotiating agents in their child’s post-college career life. Really? Really! My credulity is strained, but I’ve seen enough evidence to substantiate this as more than affluent sub-urban legend.
Those are extreme examples that make having two twenty something “children” living in my basement not look quite so bad. But I am guilty of my share of enabling some people in their stasis in the hazy world of the “adult child.” Guilty, but not so invested in our situation that I don’t see the absurdity in the existence of something like the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, an entity which views “the early years of adulthood, roughly age 18 to 34, as a neglected part of the life span that deserves close study.” At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly... by the age of 34 I had finished college without my parents having to go through ‘parent orientation’ (and doing my own laundry), married and had four children. It was not a sociologically significant feat.
Perhaps parents now have more time to obsess with the minutiae of their children’s lives. Early childhood may be marked by more pressures and stricter scheduling than in any other generation. Then the next step, adolescence, drags on and on as the unfortunate side effect of the blessing of middle class lives lived without the terror of constant life and death struggle. Families are often intentionally small, leaving parents to focus on their children with a fierce intensity. The natural sequence of markers of maturity - graduation, job, marriage, children - is now a scrambled assortment of “lifestyle choices.”
What is the worst part of this cultural phenomenon? It really isn’t in the outrageous student loans, deficit of domestic skills and slacker attitude. Where I see the most damage is in the missed opportunities to grow into and with the natural sufferings of adult life.
In his book, Back to Virtue, Peter Kreeft writes about the blessing of suffering to our growth in love: “First it trains us by sculpting souls. This is God’s work, not ours. The sculptor, not the statue, knows when and where the hammer must fall.” Parents and a society that are invested in staying the hand of the divine sculptor rob young adults of precious spiritual development. Even the catechesis of our young children has been weak on virtue and strong on “I am Special,” resulting in young adults who are vulnerable in the face of trials and setbacks.
“Even if my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in.” (Psalms 27:10) I am compelled to examine the ways in which I have encroached upon the sacred territory of my children’s relationship with the Lord. No psalmist has written “the folks will bail me out.” But the temptation to exert my influence persists and I forget that it is not necessary to forsake my child to allow her the chance to know that the Lord will take her in.
A Nation of Wimps by Hara Estroff Marano (I think the title is pretty self-explanatory) offers some intense food for thought. I can’t say I agree with everything Marano has to say, but I can certainly recommend the final chapter Conclusion: What Parents Can Do For Their Kids.  Though written from a secular perspective, each of her points can also be viewed through the lens of faith. (My desire to share this is tinged with some regret, looking back at thirty years worth of assorted foibles and failures.) For example:
7. Teach your kids how to tolerate discomfort. Teach frustration-tolerance skills and the ability to tolerate uncertainty. Teach them to suffer well. To “offer it up.” And help them to know that as special as they may be - that they are “worth more than many sparrows” - life is not all felt banners and happy face stickers. Watching an adolescent you love deal independently with the pains of ordinary life is as painful as watching your toddler toddle and fall over and over - and every bit as necessary if you want her to ‘walk’ on her own.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)
12. Take your own brains back. Get out of panic mode and switch to rational mode. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Pray. Remember St. Padre Pio’s prescription: Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry.
As Christian parents we need to be on guard against our good intentions. There is the proper end to adolescence. It lies somewhere between a teenage Marine’s Crossing the Line ceremony and the MacArthur Foundation helping 34 year olds ‘transition to adulthood.’ I pray that I, and all parents, will be able to see, accept and respect it.
 Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue (San Francisco; Ignatius Press; 1992) p. 130.
 Hara Estroff Marano, A Nation of Wimps (New York; Broadway Books; 2008) p. 260-263.
Ellyn vonHuben is full-time mother of 6 and Word on Fire Blog contributor.