Living in Limbo

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The Article

An interesting thing happened about a century ago when nutrition started improving. The average age at puberty started declining, and it hasn’t stopped. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s days (remember Little House on the Prairie?), most girls didn’t start menstruation until fourteen or fifteen. Today it’s twelve. And nutrition probably isn’t the only culprit. It turns out that girls whose parents divorce are twice as likely to hit puberty before twelve versus girls whose parents are together, so stress probably plays a part. Italian researchers also found that watching television increased levels of certain hormones, and they theorize that our addiction to screens may be causing puberty ages to plummet. Perhaps it’s hormones or additives in our foods, too. But whatever the cause—or causes—children are maturing much faster than they used to.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that today’s society just isn’t equipped to handle adult bodies with teenage minds. Laura Ingalls probably hit puberty around fourteen. She married at eighteen. That’s four years between puberty and adult responsibilities. But instead of the average age at marriage declining to match our puberty age, it’s increasing. Today, a girl likely won’t settle down until she’s 26 or 27. That’s a lot of years to be in an adult’s body without adult roles. For a lot of our kids, that’s a lot of years of limbo.

We tend to react with horror at the thought that kids might marry at 21 or 22. Instead, we encourage this extended adolescence, telling kids to have fun, explore, but above all, don’t make any major decisions.

Yet Laura Ingalls Wilder did perfectly fine marrying at eighteen. Sixty years ago the world was saved by young men primarily aged 18-24, acting bravely and responsibly on the battle field. It’s strange that we believe today’s youth can’t live up to that.

Perhaps it’s because as our society has become wealthier, we have simultaneously expected less of our kids in some areas, and stressed money matters over everything else. We want to see our kids settled in a career before they find a spouse or have kids. So we give them the message, “don’t marry until you can buy a house, become a partner at the firm, get a great job.” And while we’re saying that, we’re also inadvertently saying that money is more important that relationships. And then we wonder why too many kids never settle down at all.

Our children are maturing faster, but in the wrong ways. They’re maturing physically and sexually, but we’re not asking them to mature by taking on responsibility. And extended adolescence is not a good thing. When kids form sexual attachments long before marriage is on the radar screen, they’re opening themselves up to way too many opportunities for major mistakes with the opposite sex, including unwanted pregnancy and diseases, but also lots of heartache and grief. The whole culture of extended adolescence, too, is dominated by spending money with little regard to budgets or bills or savings. It’s tons of freedom with no responsibility.

Last summer, two of my friends had children who got married. These kids were still only in their third year of university, but they figured if they were going to be poor, they may as well be poor together.  Fifteen years ago I did the same thing. Keith and I lived with garage sale furniture and hand me downs and struggled to learn how to cook together, but we did fine. Of course, nobody should just jump into a marriage; they need to be emotionally mature enough to handle it. But that’s not the same thing as saying they need to have absolutely everything together.

Instead of insisting that kids achieve everything before they settle down, maybe we should remember little Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had nothing and did fine. She was raised to be emotionally resilient and responsible, and her family has been an inspiration to millions since. Maybe, instead of focusing on encouraging kids to put off responsibility, we should be preparing them for it from a young age. That is the model of history, and it seems to me that in many ways, they were far more successful than we are.

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