San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College have released an analysis suggesting that teens are less likely to engage in "adult activities" like drinking alcohol and having sex. What current parents of a teenagers can also tell you is that they're also less likely to be adopting other activities like driving, getting jobs, and going out on their own.
There's some benefits to teenagers acting more like kids - lower teen pregnancy rates, for one. But where some are getting stuck on this notion that teenagers are becoming more "virtuous" or more boring (really?), I fear there may be a different problem happening: we're not teaching our kids how to grow up.
They simply don't have to.
There's been studies before on "feeling" older or "feeling" more adult - which are two distinctly different types of feelings, and a very important part of what will become adult identity. Being stressed by hardships like poverty, violence, and single-family households can affect how old a child - or really, anybody - might feel. The early taking on of responsibilities such as part-time jobs, significant chores, and even becoming a teen parent can contribute more to the feelings of being an adult.
Obviously, there's significant room for overlap between hardship and responsibility, and how one might affect the other over the course of a lifetime is hard to guess precisely. After all, we can look backwards at ourselves, and our parents, and our parents parents, and you can argue that all three generations had plenty of both in one form or another. And there are other factors, too, that can muddy the waters more - low socioeconomic status as an adult, for example, is a snowball problem that accumulates from many lost education benefits and opportunities as a child. Really, the only people who may sit outside the study group of what makes up the entire world are the wealthy.
The interesting thing is, especially now, many of the "adult" responsibilities that you and I may have had as children were forced on us as a financial necessity and by society. And now, for similar reasons, we are being forced the opposite direction. We were latch-key kids who had working parents, and we're raising our children in an age of helicopter parenting and laws that prohibit our children from being alone - even briefly - before 12. We got our first jobs, and couldn't wait to get a driver's license and assume that first step towards real independence. These days, a kid having a license - even if they never set foot in a vehicle - can bump up the parent's premium by thousands of dollars per year. Some parents can't afford that, and who can blame them?
What part time job covers that amount of money and leaves any left over? That's not independence for the child; it's punitive for the parent.
Granted, having one's driver's license isn't the end-all and be-all of adulthood. There are many other little things that we may have inadvertantly sliced off the process of grooming our children for adulthood with the best of intentions and the worst of results. Socialization in person is down, thanks to social media and paranoia about safety. We're having fewer children because we're afraid of the financial cost of raising them to adulthood, and the smaller families "coddle" the young ones more. After all, there's often no group of elder siblings to look after them - or rough them up. Chores are becoming trivial.
And what will it all mean, in the end?
The study that separated the feelings of being adult and feeling old said that "adult social roles had some of the largest effects on feeling older and self-perceived adulthood. ... that the social context of growing up also directs one’s understanding of whether one has reached adult status." If our children don't ever feel like an adult, can that really be good for them?
I rememember how pleased and proud my son was when I first taught him how to make his own pasta dish for supper. As a latch-key child myself, as one who had a job and a car, and some very adult household responsibilities before 18, I can say without a doubt that those early responsibilities were formative. I am, quite literally, the person I am today because I feel confident in my ability to get shit done... because I learned how to rise to the challenge when it was needful, when I was still flexible to bend without breaking. There is no doubt in my mind that it's because of the experience of my adolescence - even the crappy parts of it - and I love the person that I am today.
What will happen if we don't start to teach our children until after they lose that mental flexibility and their feeling of being able to take on anything?