Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone?

The latest edition of First Things includes a Frederica Mathewes-Green essay so fabulous I am tempted to re-type it myself (it won't go on-line until the release of the next issue), so much do I wish for everyone to read the whole thing. For starters, she concludes by agreeing with moi that it's a mistake to encourage people to wait to get married.
The average first marriage now involves a twenty-five-year-old bride and a twenty-seven-year-old groom. I'm intrigued by how patently unnatural that is. God designed our bodies to desire to mate much earlier, and through most of history cultures have accommodated that desire by enabling people to wed by their late teens or early twenties. . . .
The same holds true for priestly and religious vocations, by the way. An apostolic school is a thing unheard of now --or considered an instrument of mind control-- but I was intrigued to discover a few years ago how many we had here in the States at one time. And the BVM --Blessed Virgin Mary -- is held in Tradition to have been very young (15?) when she gave her "Fiat." Our pastor had the first clear inkling of his vocation when he was 13, and his experience is not unusual if you collect vocation stories as I do. She continues:
Young people are not too immature to marry, unless we tell them they are. . . .But if we communicate to young people that we think they're naturally incapable of making a marriage work, they will surely meet our expectation.
Then she goes what I said one better.
In fact, I have a theory that late marriage contributes to an increased divorce rate. During those lingering years of unmarried adulthood, young people may not be getting married, but they're still falling in love. They fall in love, and break up, and undergo terrible pain, but find that with time they get over it. This is true even if they remain chaste. By the time these young people marry, they have had many opportunities to learn how to walk away from a promise. They've been training for divorce.

Up front she makes several other cogent and appealing observations. Why do Claudette Colbert and Katherine Hepburn move like queens, she wonders, with a bearing unseen anywhere today? Why do Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart seem so much older than Hugh Grant even when they're younger than he? It's that no one is any longer an adult. And that, it turns out, is the fault of the WWII generation, which saw too much blood and guts and resolved their kids would not grow up too fast as they had. But a noble desire to protect the innocence of children went a bit awry.

In the days when large families lived together in very small houses, when paralyzed or senile family members were cared for at home, when families bred and slaughtered their own livestock, even the youngest child knew a lot about the facts of life. Until very recently, it was not possible to protect children from knowing such things. Nor was it thought desireable: Life was hard and dangerous, and the sooner you learned how to handle things, the better. . . .

The well-meaning parents of the 1950s confused vulnerability with moral innocence. . . .

The World War II generation envisioned a sharp contrast between childhood and adulthood: Childhood was all gaiety, while adulthood was burdened with misery and toil. The resulting impulse was to place children in a hermetically sealed playroom. Childhood, once understood as a transitional stage, was now almost a physical place --a toy-filled nursery where children could linger all the golden afternoon. Parents looked on wistfully, wishing their dear children could stay young forever.

As they say: Be careful what you wish for. When conservatives get nostalgic for the Ozzie-and Harriett parenting of the 1950s, they should remember how the experiment turned out. The children got older, but they never grew up.

The one true thing Jeaneane Garofalo ever said was that her parents' generation worked like dogs to be sure their children would never have to work so hard. "Guess what?" she observed. "We don't." I think this (Mathewes') observation is important too from the point of view of the crisis in the Church. I have never bought the argument that Vatican II somehow caused the vocational crisis. It just doesn't make sense. The one thing well-formed faithful Catholics are supposed to be good at is fidelity during suffering, right? So why didn't the allegedly robust generation of religious persevere if the problems were all external, brought on by the Council? I have always believed there was a pre-corruption already taking place, for which Vatican II was the corrective, not the cause. The way we raised kids in the 50s prepared the way for the excesses of the Boomer generation both in and out of the Church.

But wait, there's more! All I ever hear anyone talk about these days is stress. It's in all the ladies' magazines, and the news, celebrities are hospitalized for it, and people in all walks of life are always talking about how stressed they are. Not just busy, mind you, stressed. Since most of these people don't seem to be in particularly high-stress jobs (I can understand why the President or Rummy or the chief of Homeland Security would be stressed --although curiously, these people don't discuss their stress if they feel any) I find myself wondering what these people are so doggone stressed about. Does our generation really face more anxiety than other generations, or do we just have such a finely-honed sense of entitlement that life is a series of days spent counting up disappointments? I tend to say the latter, but Mathewes thinks we are more stressed in one sense:
Of course, when all authorities have been trashed, the world doesn't feel very secure. Anxiety hangs over a culture when adults act like children.

There's much more that is good but I'll stop with this final observation about a further source of stress on young people: constant praise and self-esteem building. It actually makes people risk-averse and overly cautious.
Many 20-somethings find themselves immobilized by too much praise. They dare not commit to any one career, because it means giving up others, and they've never
before had to close off any options. They dare not commit to a single career because they're expected to excel at it, and they're afraid they may only be ordinary. A lifetime of go-get-'em cheering presumes that one day you'll march out and take the world by storm. But what if the world doesn't notice? What if the field is too crowded, or the skills too difficult, or the child just not all that talented? It's a sad but unalterable fact that most people are average. Parents' eager expectations can freeze children in their tracks. even the command "follow your dreams" can be immobilizing if you're not sure what your dreams are and nothing that comes to mind seems very urgent. It's not wonder today's 20-somethings feel unfocused, indecisive, and terrified of making mistakes. They may move back home after college and drift from job to job. They can be stuck there, feeling paralyzed for years, even a decade.

So class, what have we learned? That we need grown-ups. That we've had two generations of bad parenting. And that we must read this whole essay as soon as it becomes available. (By the way, it strikes me as I ponder this that the reason the Moveon.org crowd hates Bush & Rummy & the like with such a vengeance is precisely because Bush & Rummy, for whatever their faults, have managed to become grown-ups in our adolescent world. And what do kids hate? Grown-ups.)