Saturday, September 24, 2005

Forever Young

Frederica Mathewes-Green picks up on the subject of extended adolescence and delayed marriage. Her short essay is worth a moment or two and it is not unsympathetic to the Boomers, who were themselves sheltered by well meaning 'greatest generation parents' seeking to keep from them some of the hardship they had seen. I think her suggestion that we might learn about phasing kids into adulthood from the past is a valuable one. Ours is not the first to lack the ability to keep kids from coming across things we'd rather they did see until later. This is not a conservative lament for 50's era purity but an sober reflection that things tend to run better when you face them maturely.
The World War II generation envisioned a sharp contrast between childhood and adulthood: Childhood was all gaiety, while adulthood was burdened with misery and toil. The resulting impulse was to place children in a hermetically sealed playroom. Childhood, once understood as a transitional stage, was now almost a physical place — a toy-filled nursery where children could linger all the golden afternoon. Parents looked on wistfully, wishing their dear children could stay young forever. Be careful what you wish for. When conservatives get nostalgic for the Ozzie-and-Harriett parenting of the 1950s, they should remember how the experiment turned out. The children got older, but they never grew up. ... The Boomers as parents managed to go their own parents one better, extending the golden playroom all the way through graduate school. But the emphasis on unlimited possibilities turns out to be a new kind of prison. Many twenty-somethings find themselves immobilized by too much praise. They dare not commit to any one career, because it means giving up others, and they’ve never before had to close off any options. They dare not commit to a single career because they’re expected to excel at it, and they’re afraid they may only be ordinary. A lifetime of go-get-’em cheering presumes that one day you’ll march out and take the world by storm. But what if the world doesn’t notice? What if the field is too crowded, or the skills too difficult, or the child just not all that talented? It’s a sad but unalterable fact that most people are average. Parents’ eager expectations can freeze children in their tracks. Even the command “follow your dreams” can be immobilizing if you’re not sure what your dreams are and nothing that comes to mind seems very urgent. It’s no wonder that today’s twenty-somethings feel unfocused, indecisive, and terrified of making mistakes. They may move back home after college and drift from job to job. They can be stuck there, feeling paralyzed for years, even a decade. So what should we do? How can we recover a positive view of adult life and prepare future generations to move into it? The problem has many parts. The one I’m most interested in is the increasingly late date of marriage. The average first marriage now involves a twenty-five-year-old bride and a twenty-seven-year-old groom. I’m intrigued by how patently unnatural that is. God designed our bodies to desire to mate much earlier, and through most of history cultures have accommodated that desire by enabling people to wed by their late teens or early twenties. People would postpone marriage till their late twenties only in cases of economic disaster or famine — times when people had to save up in order to be able to marry. Young people are not too immature to marry, unless we tell them they are. Fifty years ago, when the average bride was twenty, the divorce rate was half what it is now, because the culture encouraged and sustained marriage. But if we communicate to young people that we think they’re naturally incapable of making a marriage work, they will surely meet our expectation. In fact, I have a theory that late marriage contributes to an increased divorce rate. During those lingering years of unmarried adulthood, young people may not be getting married, but they’re still falling in love. They fall in love, and break up, and undergo terrible pain, but find that with time they get over it. This is true even if they remain chaste. By the time these young people marry, they may have had many opportunities to learn how to walk away from a promise. They’ve been training for divorce. Late marriage means fighting the design of our bodies...

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