Monday, November 17, 2008

The USA and the Peter Pan Complex

"I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys R Us Kid…"

"Adulthood is the ever-shrinking period between childhood and old age. It is the apparent aim of modern industrial societies to reduce this period to a minimum." Thomas Szasz

Friends was a popular TV show that ran for 10 years- depicting a group of men and women (between the ages of 25 and 31 at the beginning of the first season and 35 and 41 by the end of the last season!) that by and large acted like almost over-sized teenagers living lives that never reach too far outside the realms recent of post-high school/ early college familiarity.

"Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood." Walt Disney Quotes

A fairly recent trend in movies pitches actors who could biologically be grandparents* as still being very juvenile in their lifestyle and childlike in their behaviors and mentality. Will Ferrell, age 41 and John C. Reilly, 43 play Step Brothers in an absurd movie that is unfortunately a little too realistic in the characters refusal to accept adulthood mentalities and responsibilities.

Actors like Pauly Shore, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey have built entire multimillion dollar careers out of depicting themselves as pre-adolecents in adult sized bodies. And the audiences apparently eat it up because they continue to make those kinds of films and shows. But why??


America has a problem. It's not just about the weight epidemic. It's not just the obsession with our electronic devices and expensive toys. It's not just that people are renting homes longer, living with their parents longer or with room mates longer and choosing to marry and have children often *much* later in their lives. America is now middle age deep in several generations that refuse to become adults.

Why? What is so wrong with growing up? Why do we have this persistent image of growing up as being a bad thing?

I met two British guys happen chance a few weekends ago that have since then given me a few things to think about. While grabbing a bite to eat shortly after introductions, we'd joked about the differences in our pronunciation of different English vs. American words and the difference in meaning behind certain terms and expressions. But later I started to think about the difference in the perception of oneself.

At one point in the conversation, I made some comment about one of them, where I used the word "boy" instead of where I normally would have used the word "guy". This British guy stopped mid sentence, cocked his head to one side and stared at me intently looking just slightly peeved. "Boy??" he inquired apparently wondering if I had meant to be condescending with my choice of word.

"Guy?" I shrugged and suggested. "Male?" I tried again, wondering what the fuss was about. I frequently use the words interchangeably around other Americans and think little of it. No one else had given me the crazy eyes like I insulted his mother or something.

"MAN." He insisted intently. And then placing a hand on his chest in case I might have missed this reference to himself; he left me with no doubt of his position. "I am a man." He shook his head baffled that I might confuse him with some bib wearing, pacifier-toting tot. "I am not a 'boy'." The word was almost spat out like an insult. "I am a man." And clearly proud of it! Geez!

His comrade gave a half smile of amusement between bites of his meal. HE understood that it was matter of importance to denote the proper respect to this particular stage of a person's life- earned by life experience, responsibilities, accountability and age; and probably they both wondered why that significance eluded me.

The age of these guys? 23 and 21.

The conversation moved forward, but later after pondering on it, I realized most of the MEN I know (who are mostly Americans) happily refer to themselves as a "big kid". They don't care if I refer to them as a boy; in fact some welcome it!

Why? What is the difference between a person of a certain age that views himself as still hovering between teenage years and young adulthood, or a person of that same age who considers himself a fully mature adult?

The answer I came up with surprised me. 


I respected these guys more than if they were to deny all that being over the age of "adulthood" implies. They were not clinging to their childhood- innocent and wide-eyed, lacking in responsibility and opportunity for growth. They were proud to join the ranks of full-fledge adulthood and all it includes- with no looking back.

I am starting to think more and more that a person's perception of things is perhaps THE most important thing there is. How we look at the world. How we view each other. And more poignantly- how we view OURSELVES.

I personally am thrilled I am no longer a child or even a teen. I am GLAD to be past those confusing and awkward years of wanting independence but still being under the thumb of virtually every "adult" in my life. Why would someone NOT want to grow up?

Fear of being the one to make all the decisions and being held accountable for whatever life throws at you? Uninterested in the obligations and responsibilities (and subsequent freedoms) that come with moving on to rule your own life? Uncertainty of what to do with your life or how to navigate through the need-to-knows of being an adult?

And were these two British guys anomalies or are the British/ Europeans raised with a healthier opinion of growing up? And does America really have a bazaar Peter Pan complex?

I would argue that it's America that trains it's consumers to think and act younger longer, and demand the frivolousness and selfishness of youth, the act-now-deal-with-it-later attitude and get everyone to buy expensive things for themselves because they're just 'a big kid' anyway and the hallmark of childhood is all the goodies and none of the sacrifice.

And I think THAT is where we find the root of the problem. Adulthood means sacrifice.

To embrace adulthood is to embrace self-sacrifice. It's looking out for the greater needs and interest of others, not just the needs and interest of oneself.
It's about sacrificing your time, energy and commodities for basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing- things children usually never have to give a thought to, or even know to be grateful for- because they are provided by adults who are making the sacrifices for them.

And no one understands self-sacrifice better than a parent. Are people wise to have children later in life when they *might* be more financially secure, better educated and more mature- but also having bodies past the childbearing prime years (younger than 30 for both males and females), less energy and often entering midlife before children are even in high school? Or are people simply procrastinating the responsibilities and self-sacrifices associated with choosing to bestow on your offspring instead of doting on yourself? Is it fear or selfishness? Wisdom or screwed up self-perception?

In past generations people "grew up" sooner. Fifty years ago, the age 16 and 18 indicated a level of maturity that eludes many 20 and 22-year-olds today. Keep in mind that Maturity means knowing what WHO you are, WHAT you want and knowing HOW to go about getting it.

Is it trained perception that has caused this switch to 30-year-olds thinking they're not old enough to deal with life responsibilities and children? Is it the demand for more time for oneself? More about immediate gratification for ourselves? Or are we simply seeing the older people who were our role models as stuffy, unhappy and unfulfilled and thinking this is the inevitability of "growing up?" Are we allowing ourselves to become overwhelmed by what should be a fairly normal process of accumulating responsibilities and learning to balance between self-sacrifice and self-preservation?

I believe you CAN seem years younger after passing the adulthood threshold- but still acknowledge your obligations as a citizen, a mature adult. You CAN hold onto the wonder and enthusiasm for life. You CAN love and laugh easily and find joy in the mundane. You don't have to let life beat you, people make you cynical or give up on hope and dreams. You simply see them with eyes of someone who is now old enough and mature enough to modify your life to achieve those things.

And I believe there is a difference between wanting to remain youthful and living with the vitality of youth- vs. stubbornly hanging onto the juvenile mindset of someone who is consumed with their own wants and wishes and therefore acts as though they are not yet fully an adult.

Refusing to admit your adulthood does not change your age; does not change the expectations the rest of the world will have of you or reverse the aging process. It will simply ensure that one day when you wake up you will discover you spent your entire life trying to stay a child and you completely missed all the amazing things that come with being an adult.

Whether you believe in the Bible or not, a lot of great gems of wisdom can be found in it. Such as this one: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." (I Cor. 13:11)

The next time someone tells you "Oh grow up!" it might be a good idea to DO just that. And do it whole-heartedly. Childhood was not the best time of your life. NOW is the best time of your life.

*If a person (let's call him Mark) has a child (Shelly) at the age of 20 and Shelly has a child at 20, by the time Mark is 43, he would have a 3-year-old grandchild.

I highly recommend the reading of these blog articles I found when looking for the final quote:

[MySpace Posted Tuesday, July 29, 2008]

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