When Does Childhood End?

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?

Hello, Unveiled Wife readers! If you’re here for the first time, a great place to start is either my round up of marriage questions post, or my 29 Days to Great Sex!

Failure to Launch: When Should Childhood End?

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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  1. If they are children until they’re 18, then maybe they shouldn’t be driving before then either. However, I disagree with that statement. Our kids are children, then adolescents/teenagers, then adults. I’ve long thought that our culture treats adolescents as too grown up in some ways (e.g., exposing them to things and giving them freedoms they aren’t ready for) and babying them in other areas (e.g., rescuing them too often when they fail).

    We parents need to keep in mind that our goal is to turn out responsible adults. Well-put, Sheila.
    J (Hot, Holy & Humorous) recently posted…The Small Stuff Can Drive You CrazyMy Profile

    • Took the words right out of my mouth! I would add clothing in the “growing them up too fast” category. Why would anyone want their 7 year old to dress in a sexy way? Well, I suppose we wouldn’t want our teens to dress that way either, but you get the idea. We’re pushing kids to go fast in so many areas and yet not teaching them the skills that they will need when they leave our homes. I blog on financial management issues and I just did a post on teaching kids about money at the grocery store… trying to transition them into shopping on their own in a gradual way.

      Jenny (comment below), I would think that mental illness would be a completely different situation. The transition into independent living for a child/young adult who has mental illness would not follow the same path, and that’s ok.
      Leanne recently posted…Teaching kids about money: Tips for the grocery storeMy Profile

      • That’s what my mom always tells me, when I would come across people my age, especially people I knew as kids, and they have great full-time jobs, kids, etc, seem to have it all together – she would tell me that I had lost all of those years that they had to get to that point, that I had lost all of those growing up years, and that where I am right now is ok, because I have come so far and have had more to overcome than they have, so in a way I’m actually stronger than they are….and life isn’t a race or a destination point, it’s a journey. Everyone’s journey is different, and that’s ok.
        Jenny recently posted…Death, Mental Illness, HopeMy Profile

  2. This is a little hurtful to me, although it shouldn’t be because my case is different from the case of most people. There are many people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, who are incapacitated by mental illness, and if they don’t have someone to help them or access to medical care and medication, many of the mentally ill become homeless, and many commit suicide. That’s why there is group housing specifically for the mentally ill. It’s called “independent living” because it helps the mentally ill be as independent as possible. These illnesses, without proper care, treatment, and assistance, utterly destroy lives, and it often takes years to find the right medication and treatment after you’re finally diagnosed (which usually doesn’t happen until well into the illness) – and then when you find the right medication, at some point down the road you have to go through the ordeal of changing it, because your body changes the way it reacts to it and it all of a sudden may not work anymore.

    I would not be alive if it weren’t for my parents who loved me and took care of me even into my adulthood, and for the others who loved and cared for me. It is very frustrating and disheartening to be an adult and not be able to be independent, and to have all of these dreams that you wanted to accomplish, but every time you try to get on your feet you are knocked back down into the hell that is mental illness. I know that this post wasn’t directed towards me, but it felt a little personal (though I know that is silly) because on your last post I left a comment about how my parents cared for me even into my mid 20s, and here the last line of your post is a derogatory statement about people not growing up until their mid 20s. I may not have “grown up” (as defined in this post) until my mid 20s, but I lost my childhood to mental illness. It wasn’t a grand old time for me, being dependent on my parents. It is a dark, difficult, much misunderstood road to travel, but we with mental illness did not choose it. We did not choose it, but we have to live with it, and we do the best we can.
    Jenny recently posted…The core values of America: Liberty and freedom of belief, and the idea that the government should not legislate religious belief.My Profile

    • Jenny, I certainly never meant to hurt you, and I’m sorry if you took it that way. To give you a bit of background, my son who passed away had Down Syndrome. I know that, had he lived, he would have faced challenges, too. And I do think that that is an entirely different situation. Certain people are just going to have it a little tougher with life, as you very well know.

      But I don’t think that changes the message at all–I think it still should be the goal that, absent challenges, children should be able to be independent relatively early. Had Christopher lived, I still would have encouraged my two daughters to be independent at 18 or 19, even if he would have taken some more time. And that’s honestly okay. That wouldn’t have made him a failure; I like to think he would have been an amazing success when he was able to live in community assisted living or something like that.

      Some people have challenges, and we all want to support them and help them. But the best way to do that is to expect all of us to be as independent as possible when it is possible. To allow those without challenges to wallow in childhood when it’s no longer appropriate doesn’t help anyone. I think if we encourage all of us to work to our potential and abilities life would be a better place.

      I’m sorry if I didn’t say that or make allowance for that in the column; again, I didn’t mean to leave you out or to make you feel badly. I just think that today there’s too much emphasis on childhood and not enough on adulthood, and in 600 words it’s sometimes hard for me to do a subject justice!

      • Thank you for saying that. I know how hard it is to cover every angle and every exception to a subject, because then there would be a thousand tangents in every post. I know it was silly for me to feel hurt.’ I knew it wasn’t aimed at my situation. It’s just always so depressing to know how I will never be what most people in the world seem to think I should be. I guess lately I’ve been rather depressed in general.
        Jenny recently posted…Death, Mental Illness, HopeMy Profile

  3. We have extended childhood till the early twenties. You see this a lot with college students. In general, I don’t think someone should vote till they are adults, and if we go by how folks live, few would vote till they are early 30s. Plus, “teenager” and “adolescence” is a western concept and a new one. In a lot of places, you suddenly transition to being an adult at 13 or 14 or so. That’s rough. Having some transition years seems a good thing, but its a lot of work on the parent’s/guardian’s part.

    Two years ago we had some young adults, dressed up, trick or treat. I gave them candy, but it ruined it for everyone else. That incident got me thinking, and I realized I don’t like what Halloween celebrates, nor what it teaches, so I’m not celebrating it. Money is tight, and I’m not going to spend it to buy candy for a bunch of not-kids-not-adults to take for me for nothing. So, this year, they house was dark and closed and we hung out with a friend and had some good conversation. When Doctor Destructo is older, we will likely do the ‘trunk or treat’ at church; though I’ve got friends who’s kids don’t do that and they kids don’t even feel they are missing anything.

    Good thoughts, Sheila. I hope to raise my kids differently.
    Rachael recently posted…Moms and SonsMy Profile

    • Rachael – My kids (now 10 and 11) have never done anything related to Halloween…and they have never felt they were missing out. They certainly get enough candy at other, random times, and we have chosen to make Oct. 31 a nice, family day. We all love it, and they have never expressed an interest in participating. Follow your conviction; your kids will be fine. Indeed, they’ll thrive because they’ll have one less occasion in their lives that encourages greed and selfishness.
      Tina H. recently posted…The Homeschool Experiment: A Review and a GIVEAWAYMy Profile

  4. The difference in other cultures is that there is a “coming of age” period. The best example of this would be akin to the spirit walks that many Native American cultures had. These usually were done at the onset of puberty, and it was a time when you were marked as a man (or woman). As a global society we’ve removed that part of our culture as “archaic” and I think we’re worse for it.

    The book “Wild at Heart” speaks a lot to the issues, mostly from the male perspective. If we want to raise men, we need to not treat them like boys. When I hear sports commentators talking about players as “kids” at 23-27, it makes my heart sink. And while I’ve been a gamer for years, the fact that gaming has become mainstream, and so many adults spend so much time glued to it, actually is starting to bother me. At some point we have to put down the keyboard and game controller and realize that there is so much more to the short fragile time we’ve been gifted on this planet.

    • Super good point! One of the problems I have had (which my family actually did a great job countering) is the sense of “adult life starts when you get married.” That seems in many ways to be THE remaining rite of passage, and if you don’t happen to get married until you are 28 or 30 or 40, it feels difficult to believe in yourself as a grown-up, even if you want to be. One thing my mom did to counteract this feeling was to buy me nice dishes — having quality things, even before I set up a married household, helped me to feel more adult.

      • That’s a great idea! I’ve started a “hope chest” for my girls that I’ll give them when they move out–and not just when they get married.

  5. When my husband and I had small children we read an article somewhere that said that in our society a child becomes an adult at 18 and it is the job of the parents to see that they can handle adult responsibilities at that time. We raised our four children with that goal in mind. They learned to cook, do laundry (for their 12th birthday, they got their own laundry basket and were required to take care of their own clothes), had a checking account and were required to have part time jobs to pay for their own incidentals. They cleaned their own rooms, and had regular chores around the house. They are all grown now and those with children are doing a good job with their kids. It wasn’t easy back then, and was somewhat “counter cultural” but it worked.

  6. Anonymous Too says:

    It is very true that teenagers are being torn between being minors but wanting independence and not being trained at all for adulthood. I taught high school and got that truth everyday (there are exceptions of course). So I agree with your thoughts on that completely.

    However, I think people are upset about teenagers trick-or-treating for the wrong reasons. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teenagers or adults wanting to enjoy the “holiday”–dressing up, having parties, and trick-or-treating. I know adults in their 30s that get so excited every year to wear a costume and have a good time with their kids. And yes, our neighbors smile and give them candy. They don’t always get to go trick-or-treating because they have to work (like this year), but they do it for fun–not greed. And I think that’s the dividing line. Teenagers or adults who show up without a costume and without any attempt to show gratitude or joy are simply greedy and selfish. And I think that’s the REAL reason the trick-or-treating of “older” people bothers some. I would also just say that I find this idea that once you get to a certain age you can no longer enjoy what most of society considers to be a child’s “thing” to be ridiculous. There’s a stigma from adults that other adults shouldn’t be wearing costumes or enjoying cartoons or superheroes or fairy tales. Quite frankly, I find that mean and callous. Adults should be as free to enjoy their imagination as much as possible. (And no I’m not talking about the ones that show no moderation and go to work dressed like a fairy.) Adults are people too. 😉

    • I’d agree–but I’d also say that’s what Hallowe’en parties are for! I don’t think there’s a need to trick or treat. You can get dressed up and have a fun party with friends, too, you know?

      • My whole family goes trickortreating together dressed up – but my husband and I NEVER carry a bag for candy. The fun is watching our kids get treats and our neighbors laugh at the “crazy” family who loves to have fun together!

        I would love for you to do more articles on expectations for kids and what is a good age for certain expectations to be placed on your kids (ie my six year old can empty the dishes, make his bed – but at what age can he be expected to pay for some of his clothes, etc). Thanks for your honesty and boldness!

      • Anonymous Too says:

        And trick-or-treating is part of that fun party. Fun for everyone (not just the little ones). Incidentally, I love that the kids actually grab the Dads hands and say “Come on, Dad!” and run to the door with him and they all say “Trick-or-treat” at the same time. I’d never take that away from parents simply because they’re “too old.”

  7. Wonderful as always! God sure uses you some times to help me! Even if that time is several years. From now :)

  8. livinginblurredlines says:

    They get free candy trick or treating and free condoms at school.

  9. I just wanted to say that I very much agree with you. My parents did a great job in this area, even with a number of children who did have mental illness. It did take long or the learning started later, etc. I do think its less about “your 18, get out of my house.” And more about young adults being capable of caring for themselves and be responsible for their own needs/wants.
    As we got older we would just plan a big movie junk food night instead of trick or treating. It was fun and you still got junk! Lol
    I did want to mention that I did appreciate how you said “leave SOME parts of childhood behind”, I think that’s a much better way to transition then turning 14 and like no more toys allowed or something. :)
    I know my brother is a very responsible adult. Has a job, pays for his car, food, rent, takes care of his place, is in med school. But he still love Lego! And why not?! He’s doing the adult things that are needed if he enjoys a little “childhood” play, I think that’s great!
    Anyway good post, I have a few years before We’re at this point, but its definitely our intention to use our kids teen years as time to help transition them into adulthood.

  10. When I was in high school I had to pay for everything I wanted (clothes, gas, activities etc), had to figure out FAFSAs, basically do everything for myself- I wasn’t babied:). At the time I was a little resentful, feeling like I should have more help from my parents, but once graduating I soon realized my parents had done me a huge favor. I have been graduated from high school for 5 years and I have already graduated from college with a degree in Special Education, taught for 1 year (before staying home with my son:) ), paid off all my student loans and now have a good chunk of money saved away, served as president of the women’s group in my church, and am very happily married. I’m pretty sure if I had been treated like a child until I was 18, I would be nowhere near where I am today. Parents need to stop babying their teens and let them become adults!

  11. If you are a teenager and show up at my door at Halloween you get the honor of “earning your candy” by having to sing a song or do something crazy for it. Not big on them going out – as you stated, there are parties they can go to or throw if they want to have fun on Halloween. Agree with you re: kids needing to grow up. That doesn’t mean “stealing their childhood” or making them grow up too quickly (I hate the way tweens are dressing and kids are dealing with things at waaay to early an age etc.). What it does mean is giving them responsibility and teaching them how to be responsible via: choices they make, chores to be done as a result of being a part of a household, teaching them that money does not grow on trees and the bank machine can only give out as much cash as YOU put in it, learning to do laundry and cook as you mentioned ! If they are working and living at home, charge them rent (my parents did that 30 years ago and I thank them for it as you had to budget and learn to live within it), learning to save for something rather than put it on credit etc. etc. Life lessons they can take with them when they move out and also carry through life. It is one of the best gifts you can give them. I’m all for kids having a great childhood and ensuring they don’t get exposed to things that are not age appropriate,, but there is a balance and a responsibility as parents to “train up a child”. Yes, there are special cases where this is not a viable option, and that’s okay, but for the most part, a very necessary part of “growing up” lest we end up producing a bunch of Peter Pans who never want to grow up and be responsible. Fully agree with you, Sheila :)

  12. First of all, I’m 16. I think our society babys kids in the wrong ways and then makes them grow up too fast in other areas. My family doesn’t really celebrate Halloween anymore but this year as we were eating dinner and hanging out we took turns answering the door. I gave candy out to girls from my high school (same age) and boys at least a foot taller than me (seemed a few years older too). That’s just embarrassing!

    I have been babysitting for 5 years, nannied for 2 year, saved up for a $6,000 car (by myself), am attending community college, and help out at home. On the other hand, my parents are still really involved where they should be. My mom is my best friend and she still tucks me in at night sometimes! We hug a lot in our family and like to be together. I think most parents coddle their kids in areas they shouldn’t (buy everything for them, give them everything they want) but then leave kids to figure out life by themselves (which is why more kids are having sex and girls dress the way they do, in my opinion.)

  13. my mom gave old christmas candy to the adults trick or treating. i think if i had adults trick or treating at my house i’d be more relaxed about the teenagers. i sometimes feel bad about for teenagers because i get all the candy i want, having little kids who’s candy is basically mine, woohoo! It’s kind of awkward to be in between childhood and parenthood at Halloween because it’s usually adults that enjoy handing out candy and seeing little neighbors in costume, and little kids that enjoy trick or treating. I do think they’re too old at about junior high/middle school and i agree with what you’re saying about the need to grow up and some point, before adulthood.

  14. I really don’t have a problem with older kids trick or treating. Why does it make it different if it’s a little kid or a big one. I don’t think it’s taking away from their journey to adult hood by denying them some respectable fun (as long as they trick or treat like the parents are behind them…respectul, manners, etc). AND I think they should be in costume. IT doesnt’ have to be trendy or expensive. Two JH girls passed us and they had on black t-shirts, white P painted on it with a black eye on their face. Black eyed peas. I disagree with parents who let that age kids go out without some semblance of a costume. If you want to ask for candy then you need to be in costume. And a lot of kids now adays don’t have extra money if the logic is they can pay for their own. My poor 12 year old, aghast, doesn’t own a phone. She only has a MP# because it was an old one of her dad’s (who now just uses his phone for music). And if that’s the logic then why should any kid go…mom and dad probably can afford candy.

  15. What a great post, Sheila. I think one of the saddest things about this “extended adolescence” trend is the mixed messages. One the one hand, kids are told they are still children all the way through college, and should expect their parents to provide everything to them and focus on “finding themselves.” On the other hand, these kids are sexualized at an extremely young age, and are told they should be “experimenting” and losing their virginity starting in their mid-teens. And thus we end up with pregnant teenagers who have absolutely no idea how to take care of themselves, much less another human being.
    Amanda recently posted…Thankfulness Day 8My Profile

  16. When I hit my teen years, I still dressed up BUT I was also expected to take my younger brother and sister around for their goodies (I had to work for my candy :) My youngest siblings are 10 and 11 years younger than I am, so it was only fair and gave me a good “excuse.” Another of my brothers still dressed up and went out, but he went out to the college frat houses instead – not always ideal, but have to get him credit: when the drunk ones invited him in, he declined!

  17. Amen, Sheila! I recently wrote an article for Celebrate Kids where I talked about this problem. What we should do as parents is to prolong their innocence while hastening their maturity. Instead, we do it backwards, rushing to rid them of their innocence while delaying their maturity. How else do we explain that Obamacare allows girls as young as 12 to receive contraception and referrals for abortion without parental consent but can keep them on our insurance until they’re 26?! Teaching them in the teen years to grow toward adulthood so they’re ready when they leave our nest doesn’t mean we expect them to behave in the self-indulgent ways that too many adults embrace well into middle age. In fact, just the opposite is true: if we use the teen years to train them toward real adulthood, they’ll be less likely to even be interested in the foolish choices too many adults make.
    Tina H. recently posted…The Homeschool Experiment: A Review and a GIVEAWAYMy Profile

    • Yes! This says most of what I want to say. I think it starts way before adolescence, though. With toddlers going for a playDATE. And how cute people think it is that ‘girl’ only has eyes for ‘boy’ when the two are preschoolers! As parents we need to be mindful of the words we use and the way we speak. We cannot afford to be flippant about this. Prolonging innocence and hastening maturity is my goal as I train my boys.

    • I like that–prolonging their innocence while hastening their maturity. That makes sense to me.

  18. I went trick or treating for the last time as a junior in high school, so I was 16. I was in costume and polite and respectful. Only one person made a comment about my being ‘too old’. To her I replied, well would you rather I be out egging your house or getting drunk with my friends(which was VERY POPULAR amongst my high school classmates)? She didn’t have a reply to that.

    So long as the teens are in costume and polite, I have no problem with them trick or treating. It’s just harmless fun.

    • But Kelly, don’t you think that’s like blackmailing people? If you’re saying, “let teens trick or treat or else they will vandalize your property”, then we have much larger issues here. We should be getting the police involved, then :)

      I think this idea that we have to let teens do what they want or else they will commit crimes kind of feeds into the idea that teens aren’t responsible. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. If we can’t expect teens to be law-abiding, then how can we expect them to be adults when they turn 18?

      Again, to me the issue isn’t trick or treating itself. I have fun seeing all the kids from the neighbourhood. I just wonder about this thought that they’re still children. Because if they are still children, then when exactly are they adults, you know?

  19. First – a caveat. I grew up in a wealthy family, and I know that affects my experiences.

    But until I graduated college, my entire focus was on my education. I think that a lot of what stopped us from, say, trick or treating as teenagers, was that it was against societal expectations and was not ‘proper’. That word was HUGE in my house. But our goal was always achievement, and I think that maturity naturally has to follow if you’re going to excel in school.

    I don’t know – maybe I’m one of the rare exceptions, but I think that you can coddle (I don’t know- is that the right word?) your children up through high school and still have them turn into responsible adults. I think that the big key is that the coddling comes with expectations for your kids. In the grand scheme of things, I think that I would be exactly the same if I had been doing my own laundry since 13 or if I had bought my own clothes in high school.
    SWR recently posted…Having a baby in grad school?My Profile

  20. Well said! I haven’t thought too much about this but you’re right. The high school years are the transition years to adulthood. It’s not like they go to bed a kids and magically wake up as an adult. It’s a process and it’s our job to guide them well. Thanks for this perspective. I shall tuck this away for a few more years!
    Mary Newman recently posted…Organizing Kids ArtMy Profile

  21. The year my daughter started high school she turned thirteen. Her friends, and some of their parents who were my friends, were rocked when she went from $2 a week pocket money (allowance) to $30 a week! But there was method in my madness. I was paying that out every week for her regular activities anyway and thought it was time for her to manage the money herself. The vast majority of it was for her weekly horse-riding lesson (which was cancelled in bad weather so she got to keep the money and do with it as she saw fit). Then there were subs to be paid at Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) every week, plus her tithe and a little spending money. I taught her to budget and bought her a notebook to keep a record of where her money was going. At the same time, I told her that we would continue to buy her school uniforms and basic clothing necessities for weekends and outings. Anything over and above that, she would have to buy herself. This continued until she found a part time job when she was fifteen. In her first year of work after leaving school, she made me very proud by saving $4,000. Sure she still lived at home but now she was paying board, helping with more of the household chores and buying her own clothes. She went on her first overseas missions trip at fourteen and her second the following year. She hovered between childhood and adulthood for several years; the transition period was very important in helping her become a self-sufficient adult. I beleive it began with the responsibility of looking after her own finances aged thirteen!

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