At one point or another, most of us heard it when we were a kid. Probably more than we wanted. Whether our parents decided that our requests were too far-fetched or we were unprepared for the privileges and objects we desired, it was very likely that those six fateful words made their way to our ears. Our reactions spanned from resignation to indignation to condemnation that all may have felt like this: “You just don’t understand.” But whatever our response was, and whatever reason was behind our parents uttering those fateful words, we all understood one thing: our time would come, but that time was not now.
Decades later, we as parents regularly find ourselves in the same position. The difference is that never before have our youth had so many options, so many advertisers, so many tempting possibilities beckoning them in. Many of these opportunities are calling them to activities previously only reserved for adults; some are calling them to activities that did not even exist when we were young. Whereas youth of previous generations were often asked to work at younger ages, those of the current generation seek out toys and options for leisure at a more youthful place than before imagined.
With all of these changes, it behooves us to come back to those six words—someday when you are an adult—and consider what there is to learn about this time-honored phrase in becoming the parent we desire to be. The first piece to reflect on is what I will call the “leverage principle.” As one definition of leverage denotes, it is using our authority “to its maximum advantage.” It does not mean abusing authority, but rather utilizing it in a way that promotes the well-being of us the parents, our relationship, and that of our children. Those who have read previous articles of mine will note that I consider leverage to be a critical piece of parenting. It is not intended as (and should not be) an emotionally-loaded term, but simply a natural principle that all parents need to invoke in the proper way. In some manner, leverage pertains to the “demandingness” aspect that is critical to being an authoritative parent (as opposed to an authoritarian or permissive parent). The leverage I am speaking of here is rather simple. We as parents must work on balancing the privileges we give with those that we withhold. Over-restricting simply to over-restrict is not necessarily better than being permissive for no good reason either. But restricting for the purposes of a) teaching children to appreciate small rewards/privileges before moving onto bigger prizes, b) preserving resources (e.g., financial, psychological, physical, etc.) for more important objects/endeavors, and c) using it as a technique to foster patience and long-term gratification are all critical pieces of leverage.
It is here that the idea of “someday when you are an adult (or older)” provides a teaching opportunity, and stops becoming just a trite statement. For example, if I am able to teach my kids why the reasons and values of waiting are important and useful (even if they don’t necessarily agree with me), then I am not only providing them with a rationale for the decisions I make, but I am also providing them a rationale for the decisions to come as adults themselves—many of which will be critical to their health and happiness someday. The more successful I am in teaching this idea, the more likely it will allow my adult children to be happy with less, and require less to be happy (and teach our grandchildren the same thing). Few attitudes if any make our life as adults easier than embracing this concept.
Still, in order to embrace our original statement of focus, we must address our own issues that will likely thwart our execution of this principle even if we believe it to be true (As we know, attitudes often don’t lead to concordant behaviors). These issues often involve guilt and other reactions to our own life experiences. Frequently I hear parents acknowledge that due to the guilt they feel for things having gone wrong for their kids (e.g., divorce, death of a family member, frequent moves, abuse), they allow them to do, or have things, that they admit full well would be best reserved for a later time, or never. But in trying to combat the guilt they feel for the emptiness or disappointment their child may have experienced, they understandably try to fill this void with objects and experiences designed to evoke happiness (however brief) where happiness does not lie. This statement is not a condemnation of parents buying gifts or taking trips to make up for lost or difficult times; it is however a reflection that the best way to replace what has been lost is to give what most needs to be given. In other words, if time has been lost, then time should foremost be given (without the frills); if traumatic events have been repeatedly witnessed, then peace and forgiveness should be given (without the lavish gifts). And so on. Otherwise I worry that kids will come to equate joy with the thrills and the frills and not with what truly fills our heart and soul.
Some parents will also say that “they want their children to have what they didn’t when they were younger” either because of being raised in an authoritarian household or due to poverty or unfortunate circumstances. So these parents tend to go to the opposite extreme even though most realize this, too, is not a better course. Gifts and privileges are lavished way ahead of their time and well beyond the quantity that seems reasonable; even time-honored virtues are undermined for the false virtue of “fun.” Again, it is not the emotional underpinnings that are being invalidated or unrecognized here. But it is that the ultimate parental “reaction” (i.e., decision to chronically indulge) supersedes “what is best.” It suggests that when this occurs, parents are allowing their experiences as kids to supersede the values and goals as parents they acknowledge. I have never heard a parent profess wanting to have a spoiled child. But many parents and grandparents I know admit to having one.
But if we go deeper into those six words, there is something else about that phrase that we must consider. It is the part that ends with “when you are an adult.” When I was kid, it sounded like something to be desired and esteemed. I knew my parents had challenges (although now I am really beginning to understand the challenges they had). But I thought it was neat and admirable that they got to do things that I couldn’t do, and make decisions that I couldn’t make. I can’t always say that adulthood has lived up to my childlike views. Yet I can say that the allure of being an autonomous, fully grown human being (at least in the eyes of the law) gave me promise that what was delayed was worth the wait, and my (our) effort and patience was rewarded when we set out to create a life of our own.
Yet, I find myself concerned that for many adults today, being grown-up doesn’t really seem to carry the same appeal that it did years ago. Others echo similar sentiments. It isn’t just the many 20-somethings hanging on at their parent’s houses seemingly intent on delaying adulthood. It is that for better or worse, many adults’ lives today seem to completely revolve around what their kids are doing. This may sound strange coming from a pediatric psychologist and father of six. But in further clarifying what I mean, it is not that I am discouraging parents from investing in all that our kids need. It is just that so often, they are investing in privileges and experiences that might be best reserved for a later time (or not at all), and ones that would leave parents with more options to enrich their well-being and their relationships, thus ultimately benefitting them and their kids. It is not necessarily that a four year-old playing soccer (see my previous column on youth sports) or regular trips to Sky Zone are a bad thing. It is just that if kids see their parents sitting or standing around watching them so often, and rarely engaging in their own endeavors, I am not sure the statement “Someday when you are an adult…” will have much allure at all. For that matter, I’m concerned that our kids might just decide being a kid indefinitely sounds like a better option, especially when being a kid (or a kid adult) means that people keep catering to you.
The other way in which “when you are an adult” loses its appeal is when adulthood always appears to be a struggle. No doubt everyone deals with difficult circumstances and unfortunate, seemingly unfair hardships, some much worse than others. But the manner in which people handle these, and the degree to which people seek help and transcendence for their strife, differs dramatically. I am repeatedly struck by the fact that certain parents who seem to be dealt quite a brutal hand still manage to convey a consistent sense of hope and grace to their children; other parents, whose stressors are admittedly minor while their blessings are many, frequently are disgruntled and unsettled. Even our young kids are particularly acute at picking up on just how much joy and gratitude, or frustration or anxiety we display as the primary adults in their lives. So we might ask ourselves, do we give them reasons to look forward to being an adult someday?
As my 16th birthday was approaching, I was convinced that somehow I was getting a car otherwise my social life was going to implode. But as my birthday passed and a driver’s license became a reality, no car came. By my senior year, I was loaning out my prime parking spot at school (given to me as the Judge of Mater Dei-Ville) so that Alan could park his vintage wooden-paneled station wagon (among other friend’s cars). It wasn’t until the summer before my junior year in college that I finally acquired (for a cool grand) every young man’s dream—a 1986 Cutlass Oldsmobile Ciera with no air conditioning and burgundy interior. Six years later, the St. Patrick’s Center towed it off our lot as it met its end. During those months and years around my 16th birthday, mom and dad decided that a car wasn’t in order for a few reasons. Money was tight, and although there was probably some way a deal could have been swung, they felt that time and money was better allocated towards school expenses, studying, sports, and saving for college instead of investing it to maintain and finance another car. I strongly disagreed. I wasn’t sure I could survive the embarrassment. But as the years passed, I realized that it might even be possible to thrive without it, even though it would take years for me to acknowledge this to them. But now I know. So mom and dad, although decades belated, I say thanks for a lesson learned that took waiting until an adult for me to realize even as I still don’t have a car today*.
* For the past nine years (when the article was written), my wife and I have had one vehicle since one of our cars was totaled while living in St. Louis. This led to using the bus system in St. Louis for my commute until we moved back to Evansville. These days, I usually bike, or sometimes run or bus to work while she uses the van.