Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column is about the “failure to launch” phenomenon in teenagers–are we raising perpetual children?
Last week, our first trick-or-treaters were a pair of thirteen-year-old girls equipped with massive pillow cases but somehow missing costumes. Nevertheless, we handed over the required candy and they moved on.
I noted this on Facebook, and thus launched a long conversation about whether or not it’s appropriate for teens to trick or treat. My philosophy was always, “if you’re old enough to have a part-time job, you shouldn’t be hitting up your neighbours for free stuff.” But I certainly give candy to all who ask. I do enjoy talking to the neighbourhood kids, and it’s one of the few times of year when you feel like a real community.
Nevertheless, I’m slightly unsettled by the cheerleading for the “no age limit on trick-or-treating” crowd. One commenter said this, “They go to school until they’re eighteen, so they’re children until they’re eighteen. Let them be children!”
And therein lies my problem. It’s not really about Hallowe’en; it’s about how our culture views those teen years. Are teens children until they’re eighteen? Or, to put it another way, at what age do we expect kids to be adults? If we want them to be adults when they’re eighteen or twenty, able to live in an apartment and buy their own food, then they can’t be children until they’re eighteen. They need a transition period. I hear people complain all the time about their twenty-somethings who won’t grow up and won’t get a job and make very poor relationship decisions, but if you don’t give them that transition time when they’re teens, it’s only natural that they would prolong it into their twenties.
Cater to a teen by feeding them, doing their laundry, chauffeuring them, handing over money, and making their lives easy and they’re not magically going to become a responsible adult at nineteen. Some may, but it’s rare.
Of course we parents love our kids and want to shield them from the difficulties we face. Sometimes, though, we go overboard and forget that we can kill with kindness. After all, is it kind to teens to prolong childhood and avoid responsibility? Our culture tends to think that being entertained and responsibility-free is the pinnacle of human happiness, yet I have felt the most pleasure in my life not in those moments when I have been a responsibility-free bump on a log, but instead when I have accomplished something worthwhile. Having purpose is valuable, in and of itself, and too often we prevent children from having these experiences because we think that they really are children right up until they leave home.
We need to get back to viewing the high school years as a true transition between childhood and adulthood. You are no longer a child, so childish things should be behind you. Do your own laundry. Learn to cook seven meals so that you can eat something different each night of the week when you’re on your own. Get a part-time job to pay for your own iTunes and electronics and some clothes. Get your own bank account and start a budget. Pay for your own cell phone, and research which plan is most affordable. Research careers, because you’re going to need to figure things out soon—since you aren’t living in my basement forever.
Pointing teenagers to the route to independence, maturity, and purpose isn’t being stingy, even if it may mean that they have to leave some parts of childhood behind. It’s how we grow up. And if they don’t grow up between fourteen and eighteen, then they likely won’t grow up until at least their mid-twenties. Is that really what we want?
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