Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Achieving Adulthood

I have worked with young men in church and Scouting settings for decades. I have seen many successfully transition from childhood to adulthood and I have seen many that did not do so well at making this shift.

Our culture has evolved into one that worships childhood and where the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood lasts longer than ever. Some never really grow up and accept the full mantle of adulthood, opting instead for a perpetual post Peter Pan state where they have adult physiques and rights without much adult responsibility.

Experts nationwide have been studying this phenomenon, which some have dubbed ‘adultescence.’ The problem is more pronounced with males than females, but it is rampant among both sexes.

Societies once had clear pathways with well defined mileposts and rites of passage. Young men and women spent time with adult mentors of their same sex that guided them and helped celebrate each new level. Today, by contrast, our adolescents increasingly spend time being mentored by older adolescents that provide role models for continued adolescence rather than adulthood.

The LDS Church has long had programs in place where youth experience clearly defined transitional periods complete with adult mentors. Beginning at age 8, girls and boys have separate activity groups. Then beginning at age 12, they have separate worship and activity groups in two-year stages.

Church leaders are fully aware that participation in these groups tends to decrease as youth age. Then comes the magical age of 18 (or high school graduation). Girls move fully into the women’s auxiliary, known as Relief Society. That presents a serious challenge for many young women, but leaders across the nation are working to find ways to help them through those difficulties.

The story is different with boys. All young men in the LDS Church are asked to serve two years doing full-time missionary work beginning at age 19. The boys that turn 19 soon after graduating high school have a clear transition outlined. Young men that go away to college also make a transition. Many of them attend young adult units for ages 18-25.

I was in a different boat at that juncture. After graduating high school, I was still 17-years-old when the autumn school term began. I lived at home, worked at a local job, and attended a local college. I felt a little out of place attending the youth group activities, but I also was out of place in the young adult group.

A few days after I turned 18, I was ordained to the higher priesthood and joined the men’s auxiliary that was filled mostly with younger married men that had families. Thankfully, I was still very involved in a fraternal Scouting service organization called the Order of the Arrow, where I worked with adult mentors and held youth leadership positions. Eventually I served a mission in Norway.

Church leaders know that this path doesn’t work out so well for many young men, so most young men in my area that are in this same situation are not transitioned to the men’s group until age 19. But it’s not exactly clear what their disposition should be during the time they are 18.

I am thinking about this now because I have a son that has completed high school and is attending college locally. He is about the same age I was at that same juncture in my life. My son has never been comfortable or developed much camaraderie with the other young men in his age group, so he is chomping at the bit to be free of the requirement to attend the youth group activities.

As a parent, I am concerned that discontinuing youth group attendance when my son turns 18 would separate him from some healthy mentoring by concerned adult male role models. That, in turn, could lead to him drifting from patterns that lead to successful transition to adulthood, or it could make that transition more rocky than necessary. And yet, I am loath to play the heavy and require him to attend, particularly when there seems to be no clear policy on the matter.

Church leaders know that even serving a two-year mission is less of a rite of passage to adulthood than it used to be. It is increasingly common for young men (and even young women) to return from serving missions and quickly slide into a sort of perpetual teenagerhood of hanging out with friends with little commitment and spending countless hours in frivolous pursuits.

We were told in a recent leadership meeting that church research shows that for the vast majority of young church members in Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, their lot in life is permanently cast by age 27. That is, the rest of their lives will reflect the career, educational, and family patterns they are in at the time they reach that age.

Of course, some people will make changes. I returned to school when I was in my 30s to complete my formal education. I jumped from a career in accounting to being a software systems developer. This resulted in a more favorable family economic condition than would otherwise have been the case. But I was an exception. Most people simply never exceed the patterns they have set by age 27.

This presents a particular problem for people in their mid 20s that are in no hurry to break out of ‘adultescence.’ They may stay in Neverland so long that they never enjoy the challenges and rewards of full adulthood.

I find myself frequently stealing longing glances at my beautiful children, wondering what the future holds for each of them, and hoping beyond hope that each one successfully makes the transition to become a joyful and responsible adult. My wife and I are earnestly trying to do our best to make sure that happens. But there are so many factors beyond our control in this equation that I frequently drop to my knees and plead for help from a Higher Source.


Unknown said...

I'll start out with the disclaimer that my oldest child is 7 - so I understand that it's very easy for me to know all the right answers for raising a 17 year-old who has graduated from high school already. (I'm still young enough to know everything ;-) )

If I were in the position you are with your son I would encourage him to choose an adult pursuit that would push him toward some personal growth - especially because he is not interested in participating with youth group. It would have to be something of his choosing, but it could be something like starting a business, taking on a "full time" job (I put it in quotes because with him in school I don't think it would have to be a 40 hour per week job to be full time), pursuing some large personal project on his own, or volunteering with some community organization in an adult capacity - anything to help him leave the adolescent perspective and lifestyle far behind him.

Sadly I have seen too many people my own age who are stuck in the adultescence that you talked about. Those who did make the transition generally did so by adopting adult responsibilities for themselves.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Fortunately, my son has made some of these decisions already. He is putting in 4-6 hours daily at school and he is working a part-time job. Those pursuits alone keep him pretty busy, but he also serves in a leadership position with the Order of the Arrow. Somehow, he still finds time to mess around on the computer quite a bit.