Too old to matureFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
When is it too late to grow up?
When is it too late to grow up? Our current National Post series examines the "hipster parents" who refuse to act their own age, and desire to be the cool contemporaries of their children rather than be boring ol' Mum or Dad. I can't say I have had much contact with such parents, as most of my time is spent at the university with those not yet married, or in my parish with those whose children are already grown.
Growing up means changing from a child whose world is driven by self-centredness into an adult who takes responsibility for others, even putting their interests ahead of one's own. We idealize children because they are rather cute and we look forward to their development. Imagine how differently we would regard a fussy baby if we thought he would still be at it when he was fourteen. Babies and toddlers and little ones can be terribly selfish, driven by appetites and desires for attention, ready to wreak havoc when their precocious, ferocious wills are frustrated. They don't know any better of course, and their parents over many years attempt to teach them that to mature means to recognize that there are other people in the world toward whom one's will must be bent -- at first involuntarily, and later, if virtue takes root, voluntarily.
It is difficult to learn how to sacrifice oneself for others without actually having to do it -- as in many things, experience is the greatest teacher. That is why adolescence can be such a frustrating time for adolescents themselves, to say nothing of their parents and teachers. Teenagers are growing in their capacity for autonomous judgment and action, but for the most part the only project for which they are responsible is their own development. Having little or no responsibility for others, it is almost inevitable that they become self-absorbed, hyperaware of their own weaknesses and imperfections. The wise parent therefore sees to it that the teenager's life is filled with things that he would rather not do -- visit his grandparents, look after his younger siblings, do chores around the house, finish his homework, go to church. These are good things in themselves, but also act as a way of learning that one's own will is not the most important guide for how to behave.
A problem arises though when adolescence -- increasing autonomy unmatched by responsibility -- extends long into the twenties, thirties or even forties. Perpetual adolescents can be very successful in life, just as high schools are full of talented and energetic students. Yet their dominant concern in life is how to best order the world around themselves for their own purposes. For most people the correction to this tendency is the accumulation of adult commitments -- jobs and mortgages and marriage and children. If those and other serious commitments are avoided, it is possible to wander through adulthood without achieving maturity. Many contemporary weddings manifest exactly this phenomenon; what should be a step into the world of adult commitments is fêted instead as an entirely selfregarding, self-indulgent celebration of the supremely satisfied self.
What then happens to the extended adolescent who becomes a mother after spending her life-to-date tending to herself ? Perhaps the child will jolt her into maturity; many adults only stop being children when they become parents. Or perhaps the child will become yet another extension of her own self-regard, not a child to be guided but another form of self-expression. Hence the hipster parent.
Men are even more prone to this problem. Generally having less involvement in child raising, they can easily slide into thinking of the child as another playmate. Far from being jolted into maturity, the child becomes another reason to remain immature. There are plenty of men who consider themselves good fathers as they spend a lot of time with their children. Yet the hipster dad who always plays with his kids but rarely teaches or corrects them is simply pretending to be their old brother, if that.
The immature parent may indicate that there does come a time when it is too late to grow up. If you have spent 30 years living like a 16-year-old, you may be too old to become an adult. Becoming an adult is, after all, something for the young.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Too old to mature." National Post, (Canada) October 15, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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