Experts say children today are more worldly wise than children once were – especially (wink-wink) about sex. My grandmother said she had no idea her mother was even expecting when a new baby (my great-aunt Stella) suddenly arrived in 1903. (Grandma was eighteen at the time.) Try to imagine that today, with women eight months pregnant wearing hip-hugging, tummy-bulging slacks. One wag said Booth Tarkington’s classic, Seventeen, would be titled Twelve if it were written today. Psychologists tell us we must adjust to children’s new "maturity".
But my emphasis in this article is not earlier maturity in children, but the opposite – maturity far later than it should be in important areas. There is a modern tendency to push childhood and adolescence out beyond the ages traditionally marked for these phases of a young person’s life. This is what I mean by the "aging of childhood". Consider some examples.
Good friends raised two sons who did no chores around the home. Their father said he worked far too hard as a child, so he spared his boys from that "oppressive" experience. Now nearly 20, neither has ever done anything except go to school, watch TV and play ball. No dishes, lawn-mowing, leaf-raking, trash-carryout – nada. Another parent kept his college-age kids away from menial summer jobs. He thought such work would degrade their mental preparation for starting out at a "professional" level. What will happen when the string runs out, and they actually have to learn to work or (horrors!) start at an entry level, is anyone’s guess.
In another family the parents distrust dating. Their late-teens kids have never dated and have received no positive instruction on dating – only warnings about the bad things that can happen. Having been denied the opportunity to develop these important social skills under the protection of their family, the children will have to acquire them later, on their own. This can lead to severe disruptions in a young person’s future.
Years ago my wife and I knew a young woman of similar upbringing. She had never dated, so when she traveled to France for a summer tour, she promptly fell under a man’s influence, conceived a child, and was married within two months. Her new husband returned to the USA with her, but the marriage soon collapsed for many reasons – not least of which was her total lack of preparation for serious relationships. (One suspected that immigration was his agenda all along, but that could not have been enabled except by her inexperience and ignorance.)
All over America, young people are remaining "children" beyond proper ages by not learning the attitudes and skills of maturity. A child of 10 should be able to comprehend his homework and complete his assignments with little or no parental involvement. ("He" indicates both sexes.) At 13, he should be able to organize a task for which he has received instruction and complete the job. By 16, he should be dependably working without supervision on assigned tasks for which he has been given only minimal directions. He should be self-motivated and able to hold down a summer job. At 20, he should be able to direct the work of others.
Socially, a child of 13 should be able to operate in a group context – as well as in one-to-one situations – without being trampled upon or needing to be the center of the universe. By age 16, boys and girls should be able to relate to members of the opposite sex in dating situations with trust, courtesy, generosity and appropriate affection. The concept of a "gentleman" (or "lady") should be fully internalized. A twenty-year-old should understand commitment, caring, and putting another person’s well-being ahead of his own – well enough to marry. Not everyone can marry at age 20 – often because of financial and scholastic considerations – but from the standpoint of personal maturity it should be possible.
The irony of teeny-boppers supposedly knowing "everything" about sex is that the experts – who should know better – are considering only the physical aspects, not the mental and emotional maturity needed to enter (and maintain) a secure and constructive marriage. Building a marriage is – as millions of young people learn every year – far more than knowing how things work, physically, in the bedroom. That aspect is not unimportant, but marriage requires an array of social skills that should not be brand new concepts to the bride or groom on the wedding day.
Who am I to comment on child development, family and marriage? Obviously not a child psychologist (although perhaps that’s actually an advantage). My expertise is empirical, not academic. It’s based on my own childhood, on my experience raising three children, on analytical observations, and on common sense. My wife and I didn’t do the job perfectly, but we completed it pretty successfully. This gives us some credibility. Each child graduated from a quality private college (for which he raised half of the funding), and two have advanced degrees. Each has a profession or an occupation, is in a stable (first) marriage of 15+ years, and is raising children. Each is a Christian, married to a Christian spouse and active in a church. None has ever been on drugs, gone to jail, or produced an out-of-wedlock child. Each sleeps with his/her spouse every night, owns a home, and is financially self-sufficient. All have personal flaws, but not enough to make an interesting chick-flick. Millions of parents would give their right arm for such a family. Each child, spouse, and grandchild is a special blessing from the Lord.
People write whole books on child-rearing, so in this limited venue I shall concentrate on areas where childhood is being pushed out too far and children are being denied the opportunity to gain timely maturity. In this article (Part I) we’ll look at failure, disappointment and inconvenience.
Many modern kids can’t endure disappointment and don’t learn how to fail. Of course, this sounds absurd. What parent wants his child to learn how to fail? "Raise your child to be a winner!" says one motivational speaker. Yes, OK. Let’s stipulate that we all want our children to be "winners", not losers. But failure is not the opposite of winning. Failure is an important learning-tool for achieving success. Every coach will tell you that his best players and teams learned to be successful by knowing how to deal with failure, until they finally achieved excellence in the skills they needed to become winners. The longer a child puts off learning to handle failure, the longer his ability to achieve and be successful will be delayed.
In Green Bay Diary, all-pro NFL guard Jerry Kramer relates how Coach Vince Lombardi drilled him mercilessly on blocking fundamentals, late into many evenings. One of the Seven Blocks of Granite for Fordham University in the ‘30s, Lombardi was an expert in offensive line play. He also saw something in Kramer. Night after night he drove Kramer on technique until Kramer – discouraged at having reached the pro level and still not be performing as desired – was ready to quit. But late one evening, as Kramer was nearly played out, Lombardi tousled his hair and said, "Kid, one of these days you’re going to be the greatest guard in the league." Revived, Kramer hung on and became an outstanding player for one of the great teams and coaches in NFL history.
Few children will become great sports stars, but dealing with failure, disappointment and inconvenience is the same everywhere. When a child is allowed to quit a hard activity or miss an event because he "doesn’t feel like it", he is not learning to deal with inconvenience. When a parent removes a child from a situation because he might fail, the child loses valuable experience. Without a cultivated ability to deal with failure, and overcome it, difficult things can never be achieved. Edison conducted hundreds of unsuccessful experiments before he found a material that would work as the filament for his new electric lamp. Medical researchers say the same.
"Sensitive" educators who seek to build students’ self esteem with unrealistic grading, and parents who carefully select activities their children can star in, produce young people who graduate high school without ever having failed or been disappointed in anything. Parents have helped them with their homework all through school. Every material desire of their hearts has been given to them. They have played on sport teams where every player must get a certain amount of playing time. Many have never played sandlot ball where kids organize and play the games themselves, free of any parental involvement. Their childhood has been extended by well meaning people, but a terrible culture-shock awaits them in college or in the workplace.
A young man in our church spoke of how "easy" life was for him in his childhood. He grew up succeeding in everything, so he had no experience dealing with failure. He met a young woman and married her, expecting the marriage to succeed, as all of his previous endeavors had. When his wife left him after six months, his world fell apart. In reaction he turned to drugs and alcohol, eventually hitting bottom before responding to what he calls "the voice of God". Gradually, he recovered and learned to deal with failure and disappointment, as well as the inconvenience of living with another person.
Another 40-something man has an ongoing issue in his marriage with what he calls his need for "space" – i.e., time for his own activities, while his wife looks after the kids. After a decade or more of marriage, he has not yet grasped that a man doesn’t get much personal space in a marriage. His time and attention are spoken for by the children he has begotten and the woman who bore them. "Space" is a leftover adolescent idea he has never outgrown.
Life is a rough-and-tumble place, filled with inconvenience, disappointment, failure, (and severe lack of space) – often with no help available except God’s hand and your own bootstraps. As children we can learn to cope with these realities – in a secure home, under the care and protection of wise and loving parents who use life’s small vicissitudes to teach but not crush us.
Learning to deal with failure is not the same as having an expectation of failure. Children who expect to fail are improperly prepared for the task or enterprise they are in – whether a course of study, a sport, an artistic endeavor, or a job. Experts report that these are disproportionately children from fatherless families. Forty years of feminists’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding, such children are "programmed" for failure almost from birth.
Conversely, it’s popular today to tell a child he can be "anything he wants to be". But this is a movie-line, and real life isn’t a movie. I might have wished I could be a Harlem Globetrotter, but there was no way it was ever going to happen. I could probably have become a player of those nine-foot Alpine horns. But why would I have done that? Parents can help children discriminate what they can reasonably accomplish, via dedication and effort, from what they can’t possibly do, no matter how hard they try, and from what would be a waste of time. This is the application of that priceless commodity called "wisdom". It is one of the reasons children should not have children. When both parent and child are children, there is not enough wisdom to go around.