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January 08, 2003

Adult Supremacism - part 4

V. Desire to be Adult [continued]

(C) How Parents Invent Their Adulthood
Previously, I distinguished between three meanings of the word "adult": (1) a biological phase, (2) a legal status, (3) a way of behaving (a subculture). Now there is a fourth sense I'd like to discuss: being "the adult" as an act of wielding power over youth.

People actively pursue being adult in order to get more respect and privilege -- by dissociating themselves from childhood, or by conforming to the fashions of adult subculture. Hypothetically, a person using these strategies doesn't actually have to do anything to anyone younger than themselves -- it's just about getting seen as a certain kind of personality. The person wants to convey that they're unique because they're unlike other youth, or that they're special because their "mature" persona is a product of personal effort.

Using another approach to win status, however, "the adult" is a role that various people can step into interchangeably. A "chaperone" could be essentially anyone, so long as they're adult. Being a "father figure" requires that you be male and adult, not that there be a unique relationship between two individuals. Stepping into one of these roles grants privilege and prestige -- but it's dependent on wielding power over one or more actual young people.

For those who desire to be adult, the ultimate step is to become a parent oneself. [Indeed, among adults, someone who's unmarried and without children is often seen as not really having "grown up" yet.] Most people in U.S. society grow up calling their parents "Mom" and "Dad", or "Mother" and "Father". The words originally (and primarily) denote a biological relationship -- but they've become something more in common usage. If your mother or father divorces and remarries, then the new stepparent is generally entitled to be called "Mom" or "Dad" as well. Because we are so familiar with using them, we think of these words as if they are proper names. They are not. They are titles, which denote a position in a hierarchy.

It is taboo in most families to call one's mother or father by their first name -- even though that is how they address their children. Similarly, it is considered rude for young people to address any other adults by their first names. They are to be addressed by their last names, preceded with the titles Mr., Mrs., or Ms.. More than rude, to call an adult by their first name is understood as a form of insubordination.

In the U.S., parenting is frequently described as a "job". How to do that job is a much discussed and debated topic; few if any parents simply improvise -- they pay attention to commentary and moralistic entertainment in the media, research, and fantasize about how they'll deal with their own kids (long before they even have a child). One important aspect of this mental preparation is imagining how they'll react to disobedience and "problem" behavior.

One of the most powerful ways that individuals invent their own adulthood is by finding fault and then punishing a young person. Early on, soon after becoming verbal, opportunities emerge to witness the youth as a comprehensible mind, an equal being -- different in body, knowledge, skill, and culture -- yet with whom meaningful conversation can be had without reference to age. These begin as moments, but expand (more rapidly when they're nurtured). However, interacting on this equal basis is a threat to parents' sense of their own adulthood. Many parents are deeply invested in being a "good mother" or "good father" -- putting that identity in jeopardy strikes at the very heart of who they see themselves as. To be a good parent, to be "the adult" at all, requires that they feel they are actively supervising / guiding / controlling their children's lives. Nothing creates this feeling more strongly than delivering a punishment.

Imagine that a youth does something that their parent doesn't like. The parent can try to raise the issue respectfully, acknowledging that they are asking for a favor (which will take time and humility). *Or*, they can claim superiority: demanding change, delivering a stern lecture, taking away "privileges", "disciplining" by causing some kind of physical pain. The parent in this situation does not have a natural, inherently right authority -- they invent the position of superiority by how they behave. If being "the adult" is an act of wielding power over youth, then by putting their child down with punishments a parent takes the artificial notion of "adulthood" and makes it into something concrete and *real*.

One would imagine that a child's *humanity* grows in a fairly steady and continuous way. Yet, given how current law is written, parental authority is an absolute up until twelve-midnight when the youth turns 18. It should be easy to gradually treat youth more and more as equal human beings -- but because the law keeps adults responsible for controlling them unnaturally long, a notion has evolved that justifies the situation -- and contributes to parents' desire to play "the adult". The common belief is that minors require the strictest supervision of all as they approach adulthood, because they go crazy with hormones, are likely to commit crimes, and generally ruin their lives (and the lives of others) during the teen years. Parents often *expect* teens to behave badly -- the media has warned them about the signs of drug use and gang involvement. By being suspicious and accusatory, they themselves give youth ample reason to be "moody", "withdrawn", and "rebellious". The media portrays "rebellion" as an inevitable phase, a foolish fad that all youth go through. But given a climate of hostility and oppressive control, wouldn't rebellion be a reasonable and legitimate course of action for any self-respecting human being?

(D) Teaching -- The Noble Cause
People have many reasons for wanting to be a parent; having children in order to become a "real adult" is perhaps one of the less flattering ones. Living so intimately with children, of course parents do get to know youth as unique individuals -- it's just that the relationship often gets tainted by trying to play an artificial role. At its worst, the job of "parent" is judge, jury, and prison guard rolled into one (e.g. "grounding" the youth).

Part of what makes the effort seem worthwhile is that raising young people has been portrayed as a noble cause. Platitudes such as "the children are our future" and "children are our most valuable resource" abound. In our country, parents and teachers share responsibility for this work. Many take great pride in the notion that they are shaping the next generation. It's rather like the notion of "the white man's burden"; turning youth into good adults is seen as a sacred duty -- like civilizing the savages. The nobility of the cause makes "adult", again, look like a desirable identity. [Mentoring in any form, even by minors in a "big brother / big sister" capacity, is seen as praiseworthy. Within the constraints of the situation, they get to be "the adult".]

Parenting and teaching have become increasingly similar in the adult public's mind. Before compulsory schooling was instituted in the U.S., when going to school was exceptional, the role of teachers was likened to that of parents. When youth went away to school, the institution was charged with acting "in loco parentis" -- in the place of the parents. Now that schooling is ubiquitous, and takes up more and more time with extracurricular activities and homework, parenting is frequently likened to formal education. Ad campaigns spout slogans like "teaching begins at home", and adult society tries to reach a consensus about whether character and sexuality should be taught by parents or professionals. In the process, young people's interest in creating themselves seems to be getting ignored.

Common metaphors liken children to empty jars, just waiting to be filled with knowledge; or to blank slates ("tabula rasa") waiting to be written upon; or to lumps of clay that need to be shaped. Supposedly youth have to be instilled with an encyclopedia of scientific, historical, and literary information; they need to be taught morality, "right from wrong"; they need to be cultivated into good-mannered, well-kept adults of "character". But how much of this really has to be force-fed to an unwilling audience?

It seems to me that the vast majority of practical and ethical knowledge is simply absorbed by interacting with good, sensible people in one's life. Special areas of knowledge are best learned -- and usually quickly -- when a person chooses to pursue the subject out of their own interest. The unschooling movement (home schooling without parents playing teacher) has demonstrated that math, reading, and other such necessities can be reliably learned without rows of desks, bells, standardized tests, and paid authority figures. One wonders: would teaching be seen as such a noble cause, were there not a billion-dollar schooling industry, populated by teachers whose personal paychecks depend on armies of children being bussed to their workplace each day?

Having examined the notion that youth must be forcibly taught to be adult, let's now revisit the idea of "maturity as a virtue". In *retrospect* adults usually want to describe their persona as a personal achievement: they figured out life lessons on their own, and created an image for themselves that they could feel proud of. Judging youth from their current vantage point, however, many adults seem to think that human beings do not take an interest in their own lives and learning about the world unless they're sat down at a desk and forced. Maturity is an achievement if you're an adult -- but if you're young, credit for your character must go to someone else. Despite any pretenses that acting mature or immature is unrelated to biological age, youth who act "mature" ("for their age") are seen as behaving in a way that is against their own nature -- as are adults that act "immature". No matter how much of a child prodigy you are, you can never escape the social stigma of being biologically young. You are an exception to the rule that youth are inferior, not disproof of the rule, and you're damned for "growing up too fast" to boot.

-- to be continued --

January 8, 2003

Posted by Sven at January 8, 2003 05:48 PM