the parenting pendulum

throughout history, children have been variously treated, by their societies (and, at a level more close to home, by their parents) as either miniature adults, or large babies. of course, those are extremes, and often the pendulum swing is somewhere at a more moderated place.

for much of the last couple centuries, parents, and culture at large, have mostly been viewing teenagers as junior-sized adults. they were given freedoms and responsibilities by the bushel-full. they were provided ample opportunities to exercise their fledgling sense of self and their sporadicly effective abstract thinking ability. the freedoms given them by parents, combined with the limitations of their own brain development (particularly in the areas of decision making, prioritization, risk analysis, and impulse control) caused them to quickly and effectively learn boundaries, particularly as they were granted the freedom to fail, to learn from stepping over the line (as opposed to merely be “protected” from the line, or told about the line).

i started noticing that pendulum swinging the other way more than a decade ago. but — holy cow — that swing has picked up insane inertia. we seem to be living in a period of time when culture, media, parents, schools, the legal system, and all sorts of other leverage providers are encouraging each other on (unknowingly — acting as each others’ accelerators) toward pushing the pendulum to a wild extreme.

bottom line: today’s teenagers (and young adults) are being treated like children more than they have been for hundreds of years; maybe more than they ever have been in any era.

this shift is increasing in speed. i see it all over the place (you will also, if you start looking for it):

  • articles and tv shows and news reports that refer to 16 – 19 year-olds as “children”
  • the same sources referring to young adults, clearly well into their 20s, as “teenagers” (how can a 21 or 22 year old be called a “teenager” by any definition of the word, even if extended adolescence has them in a post-teenage, not-yet-adult pergatorial state of developmental limbo?).
  • parents removing all meaningful responsibility from the lives of their teenaged children, in an effort to “protect” them, allowing them to stay “innocent” and “care-free” longer (i’m putting quotes around all these words because they’re so unfulfilled and misguided).
  • parents removing consequences of poor choices, with the subtle logic that “children are innocent, and shouldn’t be help responsible for actions they don’t fully understand.” by the way, this logic has caused gradual upward movement in the age of responsibility we enforce on children — what used to be an accountability that came after 7 years old (really), then 12 years old, was — for many years — at the 18 year-old mark. but that’s going away now also. ask an HR director or supervisor of young 20somethings if they’ve had parents call in to explain why their 24 year-old will be late to work.

i’m not sure it’s fair to blame parents. i’m a parent of two teenagers. or, i should say: i’m the parent of one teenager (max, 14), and one young adult (liesl, 18), or aspiring adult, or apprentice adult. if liesl is really a child, i probably shouldn’t be letting her trudge around the uk at this moment, as she is. in fact, later this week she and a friend start a 14 day coast-to-coast hike across england with nary an adult in site, unless you count the two of them.

but i digress. i don’t want to blame parents, though i wish they would stand up more against the cultural pressure that tells them they’re bad parents if they don’t smother, over-protect, remove responsibility and consequences. i wish they would stand up more to the cultural pressure jump on that danged swinging pendulum and treat their teenagers like children, their young adults as teenagers.

i’m going to do what i can to slow the currently increasing momentum of that pendulum. i’m going to gently instruct parents about this stuff (i’m amazed how quickly they agree with me and suddenly feel empowered, when i’m asked to lead parent seminars). i’m going to continue ranting about it here, in direct and non-direct ways. heck, i think i really need to write a book about this at some point (i had a full-blown proposal that barna considered co-authoring with me; but, alas, he passed).

so, it’s another title i’m going to take: parenting pendulum preventer. yup, i like it. triple-p, baby — that’s me! i might not be able to stop that thing; but i’m going to point it out, and get a handful of parents to jump off. maybe with that weight gone, the inertia will, even a tiny bit, decelerate.

12 thoughts on “the parenting pendulum”

  1. Wow, this has the Cartel written all over it. But even more than that, this is so right on. I wish I could bring this or you to my community Marko. I wish they cared enough to be in unity enough to care beyond personal agendas in churches.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Im a believer!

  2. Great post! I am in a continual battle with parents who come into my office and wonder why their students are so spiritually, and developmentally for that matter, immature. It’s never easy to show parents how much they are babying their teen, but it NEEDS to happen. It would be interesting to see how a students lack of responsibility translates to lack of spiritual depth. Keep the insights coming!

  3. I work with college “kids” and I have noticed that parents seem to want to always know what they’re kids are doing. They call, they text. They need to leave them alone! Even when kids go away to school, they are texting their parents every day. Parents text them every day. I think it’s due in part of the cell phone but mostly because parents are now paranoid about the “dangers” that they perceive their children are exposed to. Also parents live under the false assumption that they can control what happens in the lives of their children. We can’t. They’re God’s kid first, and ours second.

    We had to discipline ourselves when our kids went away to not bug them. Because even if your kid is “away” if you’re calling them or texting them every day, they are not really independent. They are not figuring things out on their own.

    When I was in high school, I told my parents what my plans were and went and did it. The plans may have changed, but my group of friends and I didn’t line up at a phone and call our parents to say that we were going to see a different movie, or that a different person was driving, or that we were going to have pizza instead of tacos.

    Assuming your kid is worthy of your trust, trust him and trust God to do the work in his life.

  4. Thanks for posting this Mark. I think you have some really good points here and as a father of 4 daughters, this has definitely made me think about how I parent them. It also makes me think of how I treat teens who are in my youth program.

    I do disagree with Cathy’s comment though. I think I understand what she is trying to say but to tell parents to leave the college young adults alone is…how do I say this…messed up. Sure, parents don’t need to be apart of everything their young college adult goes through but to tell them to leave them alone and let them figure things out on their own without being able to be a sounding board is negligent. Yes, they do need to make decisions on their own and deal with the rewards and consequences of those decision, but parents should always have some involvement…if nothing else than a sounding board.

    I’m 37 and I still talk to my parents regularly…why, because I love them, respect them and they are apart of my life. That doesn’t make me any less independent than what I am. I think to tell parents to leave your college young adult alone to fend for themselves, just doesn’t make sense. I could be wrong, but it seems off to me.

  5. tom, cathy can speak for herself; but knowing her, i’m quite confident she isn’t suggesting cutting of the relationship or deserting college-age young adults (i’m trying not to even use the language of “kids” and “children”, btw, as i think it adds to the problem). reading her comment, i think she’s just suggesting that we give them space, not texting or calling every day.

    no one’s suggesting “abandoning” your young adult children (ah, the combo term): just a dramatic weaning!

  6. Great post. I consult with families on the college admissions process and I am becoming shocked at the level of involvement parents take in the admissions process. I have had to ask many good parents- did you write this essay? They usually say “yes” without hesitation. We then wonder why these lovely creatures from God cannot function when they move on to college. Yesterday I blogged about College Major: Whose Decision Is It?

    I’m glad you are tackling this issue, Marko.

  7. Yeah, Mark and Cathy that is what I thought. I just wanted to put my 2 cents in there and make sure I understood that and communicated there is value of “healthy” parenting relationships (as I’m sure most of us would agree). Again, great, insightful post and I would buy the book you write on this subject.

  8. Love the title Marko. And don’t desert the college students in your lives. They really need parents. They need a DRAMATIC weening, and so do we. I knew I might give the impression that your young adult doesn’t need you. But, this is a comment on a blog post, not a book, so I don’t have the space to build in the back story. They need to learn by doing. They will make mistakes.

    We have very healthy relationships with our college girls, one away, and one at home. I’m very grateful for that, but again, have to discipline myself not to live vicariously through them. You know that’s what we as parents want to do. ;)

  9. sad example: I was looking for some post-grad (POST mind you) info for a lesson and found a website for parents of potential post-grad (again POST, as in master’s and doctorate level degrees) advising them what to pack for their child (yes, child and yes, packing FOR them) including 30 pair of underwear since post-graduates often don’t know how to do laundry (for the last time, that was POST-grad). Pretty sure that if you don’t know how to pack for yourself or how/when to do laundry you shouldn’t be allowed in grad school.

    sad exception to babying our teens…made all the worse since we do treat them as babies: we culturally give them total freedom and even expectation of sexual experimentation. That just doesn’t even make sense. Too babyish to call your boss or be expected to show up to work on time but as long as your “adult” enough to use this free condom then by all means do whatever you feel like.

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