Where Have All The Adults Gone?

A major stage of human development is the passage from childhood to adulthood. In many traditions this important transition is celebrated by significant rites of passage that signify that the child has matured and must now take on the responsibility of adulthood. In modern Western societies those rites of passage are no longer, or at least seldom, practiced.

Erik Homburger Erikson was a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on the psychological development of human beings. Erikson claimed that:

Ritual confirmations, initiations and indoctrinations only enhance an indispensable process by which healthy societies bestow traditional strengths on the new generations and thereby bind to themselves the strengths of youth. Societies thus verify the new individual and are themselves historically verified.

From this perspective, the development of individual identity depends on the support which the young individual receives from the collective sense of identity characterising the social groups significant to him. Such groups might be his peers, his family, his cultural cohort or even his nation.

However, in Western modern societies many young people are seemingly avoiding the transition. For example they live in the parental home longer and marry and have children later. They seek in some degree to be modern day Peter Pans extending their adolescence and avoiding responsibility.

Moreover, not only are the adolescents withdrawing from this development process, so are the adults by not providing appropriate role models and mentoring for the would-be adults.

Modern society finds it difficult to endow adulthood with purposeful meaning. Instead it glorifies youth, pop culture and self-gratification.

Managing the transition from adolescent to adult successfully is an important stage in identity formation. This process is assisted by having significant adult role models for adolescents to emulate. Unfortunately a number of modern social trends have reduced the exposure of our young people to adult role models.

In some respects the problem is worse for boys than girls. With the decline in prevalence of the “nuclear family” there are many more single parent families than there used to be, and those families are predominantly headed by women. (That in itself is a significant indicator of how men have avoided adult responsibility.) What’s more when the boys enter the education system, in their early years they will encounter few male teachers. The early education system is predominantly staffed by women. Consequently many boys will go through early childhood without significant adult male role models.

(The unavailability of appropriate adult role models is also a factor in the perpetuation of social dysfunction in remote indigenous communities as I have written previously.)

One of the unfortunate influences that add to this dilemma is our recent tendency to infantilise adults and elevate the status of the opinions of children. Dissociation of adulthood from responsibility for the younger generation is paralleled by a loss of clarity about what being an adult even means. Moreover, many adults have abandoned responsibility for the socialisation of children. Some parents, believing they are enlightened, claim that it is wrong to impose their values on their children and it is far better that the children should decide for themselves. Such children, without the capacity to make such decisions, will often rely dangerously on the practices of their peers.

We have seen as well, many well-meaning people around the world seeking to amplify the voice of children. There have been strident voices internationally, for example, seeking to give children the right to vote, even though, as we will see later, children don’t have the capacity to make considered, rational decisions.

But perhaps the most dramatic illustration of children being given undue status by adults was the international adulation of Greta Thunberg, the then sixteen year old advocate for an international response to climate change. She had no particular expertise but relied on her outrage about how the adults of the world were condemning the children to climate change extinction. Her extraordinary rhetoric and undeserved international notoriety led her to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. (I suppose that accolade has been considerably degraded since it was awarded to Barack Obama on becoming President of the United States even though he had done nothing to promote peace around the world!)

We have also had the unedifying example of children in the Western world “going on strike” from school to advance various progressive agendas (often promoted by their increasingly leftist teachers).

The developmental psychologist, Erik Erickson (quoted above) wrote extensively about the human development process. In the 1960’s  he wrote that the identity crisis “no longer denotes impending catastrophe, it is now being accepted as designating a necessary turning point, a crucial moment when development must move one way or another , marshalling resources of growth, recovery and further differentiation.”

As the sociologist and author, Frank Furedi explains, “The problem is not so much with the normative identity crisis of adolescence but the undue prolongation of overcoming it or regression to a previous phase of development”.

That is to say that it is normal and useful for our youth to experience some discomfiture as they face the transition between adolescence and adulthood. But it is the responsibility of adults to help them manage that transition in a positive way.

In contrast we find our universities, and other places of learning, contriving to shelter transitioning adults from the realities of the world rather than help them confront it. Those who should be maturing into adulthood are cocooned in their extended childhoods by “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings” and the liberal application of “cancel culture”.

Frank Furedi has commented:

In some instances, the infantilisation of university students has become a caricature of itself. Many universities provide anxious undergraduates facing exams with soft toys and pets to stroke in designated chill-out rooms. Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School both have resident therapy dogs in their libraries. At the University of Canberra in Australia, pre-exam stress relief activities include a petting zoo, bubble wrap popping, balloon bursting and a session titled “How can you be stressed when you pat a goat?”

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a leading researcher in psychology and neuroscience and author, advocates that instead of closing down dissent we should spend time considering other points of view and why people might hold such points of view.

She writes:

I’m not asking you to change your mind. I am also not saying this challenge is easy. …………..But when you try, really try, to embody someone else’s point of view, you can change your future predictions about those people who hold those different views. If you can honestly say, “I absolutely disagree with those people, but I can understand why they believe what they do,” you are one step closer to a less polarized world. This is not magical, liberal, academic rubbish. It’s a strategy that comes from basic science about your predicting brain.

In effect, Barrett is telling us that “cancel culture” and related strategies that prevent us from even being exposed to dissenting voices, is thwarting positive brain development in our young people.

Psychologists tell us that the decision-making capacity of adolescents is thwarted by the slow development of their brains. The brains of adolescents are said not to be ready to be able to make considered judgments until their early twenties (especially for boys whose development of cognitive capability generally lags that of girls by a year or two).

However, this undeveloped reasoning is often brought prematurely into play by well-meaning adults who don’t understand their proper roles as parents and mentors.

There is a modern tendency, for parents in particular, to want to have children love them or possibly more correctly, to like them. That is in itself not an undesirable outcome, but it overlooks the essential role we have in preparing our children to engage productively with society as they mature. If we bend over backwards to maintain the ill-considered approval of our children at the expense of ensuring that they are well-equipped to deal with the world, then we have not fulfilled our obligations as adults. Parents, teachers and other adults involved with children have gone out of their way to attempt to become friends with young people rather than be their guides and mentors.

Insecure adults, who essentially act to “buy” the approval of children, make many compromises that are not helpful to the child’s long term welfare. In this process children learn to manipulate adults to get their way even when it is demonstrably not good for them. Often such learnt behaviours, unconsciously encouraged by complicit adults, can result in perverse, manipulative behaviours.

(These behaviours have been appropriately described as “get my way” behaviours by David Burkett and John Narciso in their little book Declare Yourself. This is a must-read book for those trying to understand human behaviour. The authors rightly point out that human behaviour is often better understood by viewing the consequences of the behaviour rather than the purported stimulus of the behaviour. As the good Dr Phil has said, often behaviour is better understood not by what went before but by what happens after.)

In essence if you let your children get their way by whining and wheedling and confected suffering, you had better be prepared for a lot more of such dysfunctional behaviour because you have inadvertently reinforced it.

In the scramble for parents to maintain the approval of their children, irrational parental responses are triggered. Many children live in an environment where they don’t have to do anything unless they want to or, at the very least, agree to do.

As a result we see the unedifying examples of parents attempting to reason with very young children to gain the child’s approval to act in a way that the parent believes is appropriate. Yet we know that children are incapable of even basic abstract thinking until they are seven or eight years of age.

A loving parent would insist that the child should do what is necessary to prepare the child well for a place in society. Too often, it seems, parents are more concerned with being “liked” by their children rather than do what is best for them in the long term. In my mind if that is “love”, it is a very immature form of it. When you Love somebody you act to do what is best for them not what makes you feel good!

The abrogating of adult responsibilities probably has many sources. But let me at least examine a couple of them.

The first regards our changing demographics.

My grandmother had thirteen children. Whilst that was a larger than normal family, even for her times, it is true that in the early half of the twentieth century the size of families was far larger than it is currently when natural birth rates struggle to maintain the population. (Australia, for example, has relied heavily on immigration to grow our population for many years.)

So in those times the ratio of children to adults was much higher than it is today. This had two related impacts.

Firstly it meant that adults weren’t able to lavish the same level of attention on children as they now do. Parental resources were spread much more thinly across their offspring.

A second (and related) effect was that children turned more to their peers for company, amusement and entertainment. Adults didn’t involve themselves so much in providing play and diversions as they now do. As an infant I can seldom recall adults playing with us. Consequently children had to relate to other children and work out strategies to assimilate with their peers.

When the ratio of adults to children increased it seemed inevitably to result in children being pampered and coddled by adults.

(I went to China when the Communist Party had directed that families should only have a single child. My companions and I visited a park in Beijing where typically there were four or five adults – presumably parents and grandparents –hovering over each single child attempting an outdoor activity such as flying a kite. We might not have experienced such extremes in Australia but parental involvement in play and entertainment of children has dramatically increased in the last half century or more.)

But after diminishing family sizes and the ageing of our population, the second influence which has tended to reduce proper parental responsibility has been the effect of the self-esteem movement. In the wake of the pop-psychology which developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Because of these beliefs, parents are reluctant to criticise their off-spring. Nothing must be done that will upset the child. Consequently appropriate discipline and corrective strategies are rendered far more difficult. As a result children are lavished with unearned praise that inflates their egos and renders them vulnerable to the real world once they leave the cosy cocoons their parents manufacture around them.

Rather than raining adulation on our children they will be more robust if we love them unconditionally. They don’t need to be put on pedestals they just need to know that they are loved and that love doesn’t depend on any special attributes but they are loved and accepted just as they are.

Now that is not to say that parents shouldn’t try to modify the behaviour of their children when such behaviour is inappropriate (of course they should – it is part of their mandate as a parent to prepare their children for a productive and fulfilling life in society), but such behavioural modification must be done in a constructive way. Just as we shouldn’t allow children to manipulate their parents by “get my way” behaviours, parents shouldn’t manipulate their children by inappropriate means.

The two most prevalent ways parents seek to manipulate their children is by:

  • Withholding regard, and
  • Inferring to children that they are somehow responsible for their parents’ emotional state.

[I have written extensively about these issues in the past and I don’t want to go over old ground. So let me just give some simple examples of how these two issues might manifest themselves.

Withholding regard: A parent might say, “Mummy doesn’t love little girls that don’t share their toys”.

Holding a child responsible for the parent’s feelings: A parent might say, “You make me so angry when you just throw your clothes on the floor!”]

Whilst, if you read the popular literature, you might come to the conclusion that, in our society, being a child brings particular difficulties, I would argue that circumstances now contrive to ensure that being a parent is even more difficult.

To begin with no other generation of parents has had to deal with anything so pernicious as the internet and social media. Children are being exposed to deleterious influences that past generations could not have imagined.

As well, the state has taken it upon itself to promote “wokeness” in our education system so that children are indoctrinated in all manner of progressive doctrines such as gender and identity politics, environmentalism and various other spurious belief systems. In this regard the state has usurped the traditional role of parents and adult mentors in shaping the beliefs and behavioural patterns of our children.

The digital economy has added layers of difficulty on parenting.

When my children were adolescents, it was enough that we should counsel them not to drink and drive. But today it would be just as significant to ensure they did not “text” and drive.

It is a common admonition that parents are advised to limit the “screen time” of their children but schools require children to do their homework and their research on-line.

To add to the anxieties of parents, many of the aberrant behaviours of their children that in my generation would have been accepted as just normal variations of behaviour are now diagnosed as psychiatric or psychological disorders. And this often makes parents feel inadequate or guilty.

So where have all the adults gone?

They have fled from responsibility.

They have been made redundant by the “nanny” state.

They have been displaced and unduly challenged by the digital economy.

They have been disempowered by ideologues that have captured the education system.

One can’t help but be pessimistic about the future of our young people that have in large been abandoned, to muddle through without the influence of significant adults to nurture their important transition to maturity.

We need to be clear that adults are not merely biologically mature people but they are also required to possess the moral capacity to exercise responsibility and embrace their duties as mentors and role models to the young. It is time to bring back the adults!

6 Replies to “Where Have All The Adults Gone?”

  1. Jacinta Price…….. wow!! What a class act and a truly great Australian. Our indigenous youth could not ask for a better roll model.

  2. It’s been called the entitled generation but I now realize it is really just the immature generation. Maturity comes from adversity and often greatness comes from great adversity not despite it. If you think about it it does not seem a surprise that by treating a child as if they’re an adult would take away any desire of the child to become an adult. In their mind they’re already there and there is nothing to aspire to. We also cripple our children by not letting them experience failure and the consequences of their actions. Not easy being a parent though in today’s world of affluence and plenty and let’s face it we are biologically programmed to respond to those cute little faces.

  3. Recently my 27 year-old daughter (who is well educated and teaches maths at a private school) was excitedly telling me how she was going to see a live production “where the actors were deliberately from diverse backgrounds”. When I di not get exited about this, she asked “you don’t agree with diversity?”
    My reply was “I grew up in PNG and went to school with people from many nationalities. I don’t care about the person’s skin colour. I have employed people and am only interested in how they use their brain”.
    While not a direct challenge to her point of view, I hope she can expand you world view to include my experience.
    Ted, thanks for sharing Jacinta’s article – I sent it off to my daughter for her consideration

  4. Ted, appreciate the philosophy and content of this essay, as it very much follows what I have written in my book “Becoming: the ordinary person’s road map to life’s big decisions”. The book contains a model for confident decision making on the way to raising children capable of growing to be productive adults. Failure of adults to mature almost guarantees children fail to mature, with high social and economic costs. Erikson was on the money.

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