Growing up today takes longer, and is harder than it has ever been. In part, this is because the ecology of childhood has lost an essential form of balance that was routine several generations ago. A critical developmental step, one that enabled the natural transition from adolescence to adulthood, is increasingly absent in the lives of teenagers.
Have we become so immersed in a culture of performance that it’s hard to see what this missing ingredient is?
If you are one of the dedicated teachers, therapists, or parents that read this newsletter, we are probably kindred spirits in the respect that we revel in those moments when children and teens can pull themselves up – ascending the ladder of life’s challenges with confidence and enthusiasm, applying grit and perseverance when necessary. However, we are mistaken to believe this sort of leap in self-reliance begins primarily with study habits and school work. Unfortunately, that is precisely where many of us focus our expectations; we would like for school itself to build the maturity needed for self-directedness and reliance.
Alas, that is simply not the natural order of things when it comes to growing up. It only seems that way because our society has evolved to emphasize the role of school (particularly with regard to the enormous allocation of time it requires) above all other developmental tasks in a young person’s life.
How did this happen? Well, for the most part, we have seen the steady shrinking of vocational opportunities relative to the number of prospectively qualified graduates to fill available vacancies. With good sense, we have seen how a person’s chances of being a “winner” in life’s vocational lottery are substantially increased by a better education in all respects; attendance at the best possible schools, increasing years of education, and of course, a consistently high level of achievement.
As parents, we diligently pursue this proven course of success. As professionals, we do our best to shepherd students through the maze of educational challenges toward the attainment of the best possible outcome.
Yet there is a price to be paid for this single- mindedness – and it is already apparent in the obvious difficulty so many kids have making the psychological transition from adolescence to adulthood.
In most cases, this problem is disguised as a lack of motivation – but there is a better, more meaningful answer. It’s an answer that highlights the primary missing ingredient in the moral and spiritual development of adolescents – purposeful work.
From Observer to Participant
Although school work is clearly purposeful, the kind of work I am advocating here emphasizes the development of non-academic skills. More specifically, purposeful work propels the transition from being an observer to being a participant. This unspoken change is nearly universal, as virtually all cultures designate some form of purposeful work as a portal to full participation in a society of other workers.
In some cases, purposeful work requires technical skills that involve working with one’s hands and, in all cases, they are skills which contribute directly to building a sense of personal mastery and confidence. Ironically, making a place for this type of competence in an adolescent’s life provides the necessary context to give school work its greatest meaning.
Even for the best students, years of school work may become repetitive and abstract. Consequently, the purpose of that effort may dangle in limbo for students who remain years away from the opportunity to practically apply what they have learned.
I believe our empathy for this situation should lead us to restore an essential form of balance in the lives of youth – the need to engage in purposeful work that contributes to a cause greater than themselves. That’s one of the conundrums of being a devoted student. It’s a commitment that is clearly admirable, even while it leads to a partial state of myopia: “I am my grades.”
Three Key Challenges
Even as they sleep late, insulate themselves with music, and resist our inquiries, adolescents are yearning for experiences that make space for them as a “doing” participant. Almost all of the brightest minds I interact with these days are talking about big environmental or social issues – and I think they want to be involved – now.
From my perspective, there are several substantial, but manageable challenges involved in the smooth promotion of teens to the type of purposeful work that eases the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
- It takes 18 plus years of education to become qualified for many occupations, yet many people are in need of the emotional and cognitive rewards of work at least 4- 6 years earlier. The primary kinds of work readily available to youth typically involve a low level of skill, and require allegiance to a corporate entity rather than the more immediate needs of family or community. As a result, these jobs are forms of productivity whose rewards are almost exclusively defined by financial compensation.
- The intense busyness of many adolescents lives precludes the possibility of a sustained commitment to purposeful work.
Add to these challenges the apprehension that many parents and schools might naturally feel about revising developmental or curricular priorities. It’s choices like these that should remind us “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Work is Gravity
So much of what concerns our society about teenagers is their impulsivity and its prospective consequences. If an adolescent’s impulsivity expresses the unbearable lightness of being, then surely work represents the necessary complement of gravity. Physical work, especially, helps to “ground” impulsivity, giving most kids better odds at regulating the turbulence of growing up. (This is what psychologists call self- regulation and it is the essence of good executive control.)
When we commonly observe that the lives of so many adolescents (outside of school) are preoccupied with self-amusement – it should not surprise us to see a dramatic increase in the failure to launchepidemic! We think of these young people as stuck, as though they are being held back by a powerful force within. In reality, however, these are people for whom any sense of gravity is absent. Their lack of direction reveals a deeper lack of meaning – exacerbated by an excess of amusement.
Although there are many potential forms of work suitable to teens, I will admit a strong bias toward work that is physically taxing. Why? Because physical work helps the body regulate the mind. Physical work is part of a proven recipe for growing up. Not only does fatigue help to moderate the effects of surging impulsivity, it builds a kind of body-based intelligence – so that when adolescents make important decisions their physical self is a part of the equation.
For example, “should I buy a modest, used car with available savings, or should I borrow money to buy a new car?” Having worked brings the value of physical effort to the forefront of that consideration. Not only in the sense of understanding basic economics, but also with respect to being able to understand how physical energy translates into accomplishment and the attainment of goals.
This insight stands in stark contrast to the implicit message of society that demands 18 plus consecutive years of a school-dominated life. This developmental agenda has roots that hearken back to an industrial past, when school could literally save someone’s life by keeping them out of jobs that might have worked them to death.
Today, the imperative to achieve in school continues to revolve around increasing the odds for a quality life, post-graduation. This, even while our pervasive emphasis on school achievement unintentionally separates young people from the gravity – purposeful work – that could give that accomplishment needed context.
For some kids, physical work is a less suitable fit than something more analytical. That’s okay. I know kids who are captivated by caring for the young or elderly, starting up an internet business, or spearheading a garage sale. These are all acceptable options.
What distinguishes these types of work from those that involve repetitive, unskilled tasks is that they teach and require important forms of personal responsibility. Purposeful work counts for something beyond pocket money. The work itself has a value that instills a sense of worth about one’s time. Appreciating that worth is diametrically opposed to the psychology of a failure to launch.
We should not be surprised if kids weaned on “McJobs” find work so unappealing that they opt for the reliable buzz of video games over work that monotonously drains their energy and subsumes their individual identity in favor of non-creative compliance.
(A challenge, of course, is to find work that relatively unskilled workers can do that feels creative and purposeful.)
Plainly stated, work that may meet economic needs may oppress the transition to adulthood rather than nurture it. This is a newish phenomenon. In years past, the thought of being stuck in a menial job would likely have scared a young person to do what is necessary to have something better. Today, few kids consider accepting such jobs, preferring to live off the kindness of strangers [friends] and nervous parents.
To pay or not to pay: that is the question
Let’s face it, one of the big stumbling blocks to solving the work problem is whether or not kids should be paid for their work. While we can all recognize the value of being paid, I’ve wondered whether it keeps some adolescents from the purposeful work that would result in more significant long-term returns. It might surprise many of us to see how eagerly teens engage in work that gives them a fighting chance to feel competent, skilled, and valued.
If we encourage this type of work when children are young, there is a much better chance that they will be able to do purposeful work worthy of monetary reward by the time they reach adolescence.
I had a chance to see a terrific example of this type of program in action during a recent visit to The Lamplighter School in Dallas, Texas, where young students (preschool to grade 4) can participate in Lamplighter Layers, a for-profit corporation that sells eggs laid by school chickens. The chickens and other animals are housed in a barn adjacent to the school’s playground – a clear indication of the seamless (natural) integration of work and play. Students take part in caring for the chickens, selling the eggs, and running the business – and Lamplighter students have been doing this for 30 years!
Some Final Thoughts On the “Failure to Launch”
From our 21st century perspective, I believe most of us are inclined to see problems with the transition to adulthood as a component of psychological maladies. And in cases where rampant male impulsivity is a concern, evolutionary psychologists might have us believe that such instincts were once crucial to survival.
But some aspects of adolescent behavior may owe less to a process of natural selection than a side- effect of true adaptation – what the great Harvard paleontologist and evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould calledspandrels.
Seeing teenage behavior through this lens, we can understand how the undesirable extremes of adolescent existence – inertia and impulsivity – are opposite sides of the same coin. Both extremes have evolved as the unintentional result of the radical and relatively recent disappearance of purposeful work. It is as though the unbearable lightness of adolescence – which has always been a fact of life – has lost the gravity which held kids together until the turbulence of adolescence had passed, until the time when participation can fully bloom, and the value of a great education becomes crystal clear.
Here are some exceptional examples of young people doing purposeful work, now:
A young researcher (“Work that is not goal-oriented, I feel, falls under the category of incrementalism.”) Megan Blewett, age 18
Thomas Alexander Tefft, teacher (17), architect (22)
Helping Boys to Communicate and Connecthave heard me discuss how boys who are better able to think in words (rather than only impulses), are better at making decisions when they approach important “forks in the road.” Simply put, words distinguish human being from other mammals because they enable our minds to forego reaction for the benefits of contemplation.
A recent study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, led by psychologist Adam Winsler, reports some definitive benefits of children’s private speech. For example, 78% of children between the ages of two and five did better on performance tasks when they used private speech as a problem- solving aide. The benefits of private speech were present whether or not the kids used private speech spontaneously or did so at the request of an adult.
Especially interesting is that Winsler found that children with ADHD and related behavioral problems use private speech more frequently than other children. This may be a sign that such children instinctively use self-talk to self-regulate. Clearly, it should signal educators that sometimes it is in a young student’s best interest to talk to him or herself while working at various tasks.
Finally, the benefits of private speech have also been established for autistic children. Researchers who noted significant problems in the social speech of autistic kids were surprised to find that their private speech was far less problematic. The self-regulatory benefits of private speech for autistic children is summarized in “Private Speech and Executive Functioning among High- Functioning Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders,” in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
Ask Dr. Cox
Q. I read your recent newsletter and suspect my son is on the bullying side from time to time. I know this is a direct result of his other parental influence. How can I be the stronger influence when bullying makes more noise? Anonymous, Bethlehem, PA
This is a more common problem than many of might realize. In fact, studies have demonstrated that bullies are often quite popular – at least until they reach adolescence. Boys who bully are often kinesthetic learners, meaning that they integrate new ideas best when that learning is activity based. If you want to teach your son empathy for others, spend less time talking about the idea and more time putting it into action. Provide ample praise whenever you see your son express practical consideration of others, and give him unambiguous signs of your disapproval when he does otherwise.
When your son makes a mistake by acting as a bully, ask him to do something to make up for what he has done – and be consistent. If his other parent continues to encourage bullying, do not hesitate to seek intervention from an outside party. Fathers (or mothers) who use their son to vicariously work through their own anger are inflicting wounds that may take a lifetime to heal.
Q. I’ve been struggling with my son since 1st grade to get his homework done on time. Now he is 12, in 7th grade. His teacher’s only complaint is his refusal (inability?) to complete homework. I am frustrated and tired of yelling at him to complete his work. We have tried rewards, punishments, ignoring. I am looking into some kind of evaluation or therapy. Am I too late? I would really like my son if he wasn’t my son, with all the challenges of raising him. Lisa K., New Tripoli, PA
I don’t think you are too late! But what your son needs is not necessarily an evaluation or therapy – he needs some academic coaching.
This person could help you and your son structure his homework time, and develop a system of greater accountability with respect to the consistent completion of homework. Doing homework often looms larger in a child’s mind than it actually is. Learning to get it out of the way in the afternoon, breaking it up in three short segments, separated by some time of fun physical activity, and frequent parental check-ins seems to help middle school age kids more efficiently complete homework.
Also, for the average 12 year-old boy, organization is a common challenge. I have met many boys who could easily do their work if they had established a manageable system for organizing their materials, study, aids, due dates, etc.
Finally, make it clear to your son’s teacher that you support his or her concerns, and that you will do everything you can to solve the homework problem. Ask if you and the teacher can begin this process through some form of daily communication. Until you consistently receive accurate information (as we all know, most kids are notoriously unreliable when it comes to reporting on homework), you can’t assess whether your efforts to help your son are working.
Note: A few sessions with a family therapist may be helpful if you’re feeling tired and frustrated – mothers need support too! Find more helpful articles and insights at:
Do you have a question for Dr. Cox? Email your query with “question for Dr. Cox” in the subject line -your question may be answered in an upcoming issue of Family Matters! Feel free to email my office via this website and request to be put on our Location List, so that we can advise you if I’m doing a public program in your area. (Please give name, email, city, state/province, and which program(s) you’re interested in. Also include contact information if you’d like us to forward workshop information to any local groups in your area.) Workshops at schools and community groups help me to explain not only “what” to do, but show “how” to do it. Thank you.