Stop Trick-or-Treating and Grow Up

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You are too old to trick or treat. Not just you, dear reader, but any youngster with armpit hair, a smartphone, or the cognitive ability to have reasoned out the unlikelihood of Santa. That’s right, if you’ve begun to doubt a magical bunny hops into your house to hide eggs every April, or that a little fairy pays you for lost teeth, then your door bell ringing days are numbered. I’m sorry for the bad news. Next week, I’ll reveal this little secret your parents have been keeping about a thing called death.

Perhaps you can get away with one last romp through the neighborhood in 6th or 7th grade. That means you and your 11-year-old buddies can go, WITHOUT parental assistance, and collect candy for one more year. None of this mom taxiing you to the rich neighborhood and following you from stop to stop. The fact that parents provide this service highlights my point. Too many are intent to keep their children perpetually dependent and infantile.

Even for those of trick-or-treating age, the beautiful tradition of walking from house to house is becoming “dangerous.” Like everything in our over-sanitized world, parents have deemed walking in the neighborhood too risky. The ever-present hands of consumerism have heard parent’s concerns and offered a solution. “Join us at the Northeast Mall for a safe, indoor Trick-or-Treating experience.” After all, it can get chilly in late October. Why breathe all that fresh air when you could be ingesting the gallons of cologne sprayed at Abercrombie.

Let’s ignore the fact that eating an absurd amount of sweets is neither abnormal for the average American youth nor desirable (Harvard projects over 57% of 2-19 year-olds will be obese by the age of 35). Despite the American propensity to race to our own physical demise, Halloween is a fun tradition I look forward to enjoying with my own children. The skyrocketing rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases of affluence are not born from one big evening. My issue with high-school Halloween is that it is symptomatic of a parental culture hell-bent on ingraining entitlement and perpetual dependency. Children grow older and expectations must change, lest we create a generation of infantile 20-somethings offended that you forgot their birthday week, while parents continue to pay all their bills.

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There is nothing wrong with being a big, playful kid. In fact, I believe a lack of adult play contributes to increased adult alienation and physical decay. Adult play, however, is not always the same as children’s play. I play racquetball and do backpacking trips with my friends- not peek-a-boo and side walk chalk (full disclosure, I’ve done both peek-a-boo and side walk chalk today, but I have a 19-month-old… you get my point). Furthermore, there are child things that necessarily have always been left behind as we mature and transition into new stages of life. Getting scared and crawling into the parental bed; school valentine’s day parties; macaroni Father’s day cards; “time-out;” putting Disney Band-Aids on every ouchy; getting grades for class conduct; and the word “mommy” all are inappropriately childish long before high-school. At a certain point, it is no longer cute when you fart in public and it is not Mommy’s job to ask the teacher when you can come in for help.

Likewise, walking from house to house, ringing door-bells, saying the words “Trick-or-Treat” and feeling entitled to a random community-member’s sweets is not for teenagers. There is a finite bowl of candy that should be reserved for children incapable of earning a wage to purchase their own. No home needs to be buying more candy supply so that they can meet the demands of adding older consumers. You’re right, candy is cheap. The real issue lies in our headlong drive to delay adulthood.  

There is a chorus of indignant mothers, angry at community members for uttering the obvious: “Aren’t you too old for this?” It is another example of parents fighting ridiculous battles to protect their kids from any discomfort. “It isn’t fair to my baby for people to ask that.” Actually it is completely fair. If your high-school junior wants to dress up as Maui and ask for Twix, that’s cool. He just better be ready for some raised eyebrows. I wouldn’t get offended if the bank teller looked at me weird when I asked for a lollipop, or the mall Santa told me to get off his lap. It’s part of growing up. Furthermore, what happened to that essential lesson my mom taught me: life is not fair, but that is what makes it wonderful- that is what keeps us growing.

“Kids grow up too fast” we say. But, they have never grown up so dang slow. Throughout early American history, children, were seen as “little citizens,” according to Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult. While loved, they were treated less as deities and more as adults in training. The primary directive of parenting was to inculcate children with skills, purpose, and a sense of duty to courageously stand for their values. Every great culture has gone to great lengths to mold the next generation into autonomous, responsible citizens, capable of contributing to society. Society has always had a sense of responsibilities inherent with the immense privileges of citizenship. In 1942, as the U.S. entered World War II an entire nation willingly sacrificed for the good of all. Everything from gas to groceries were rationed, young men prepared for war, and a generation of kids helped their parents plant “Victory Gardens” to ensure their food supply. Today, the pendulum shifts towards entitlement and parenting obsessed with providing over-abundance and protecting from all pain.

In our rush to coddle, we’ve eliminate the stimulus that would prompt our children to become strong, admirable, and purposefully passionate. Our children pay the price. Depression and anxiety proliferate as a generation conceives finding pleasure and comfort as the point of life. An expectation develops that the world should acquiesce their every delusion. Kids have been given everything except what they need: parent-free adversity, self-directed challenge, and real experience that develops a broader sense of one’s place in the world. Too few have ever been prompted to enjoy exploration and discovery or to develop a personal sense of what make’s life worth living. Many of today’s teenagers are allowed to develop an entitled worldview, completely divorced from reality. They arrive at college demanding safe spaces and protected feelings as society pretends the student’s outrage is, somehow, transcendent and their dependency indicative of what they deserve.

Appropriate Development

Parents are quick to justify high-school trick-or-treating with the old, “they could be out doing far worse.” Yes. And to be honest, from a developmental perspective, they should be. Dr. Jean Twenge has been studying generational characteristics for over 25 years. Changes between generations have always been slow and gradual indicating previously noticeable trends. As she explains, “beliefs and behaviors that were already rising continue to do so. Millenials, for instance are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers….” The confluence of lawnmower parenting and smartphones have changed that, however. “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear,” Twenge notes.

Both in attitude and experience, today’s teens are a stark mutation from the oft-criticized millenials that preceded them. Most disturbingly, iGen, as Twenge calls this generation, displays a radical loss of independence. “12th graders in 2015 were going out less often than eight-graders did as recently as 2009.” Today’s high-schoolers are less likely to date, to drink, to sneak out, to drive, or to begin working at age 16. We’re seeing a generation that is simply losing the desire to become self-sufficient adults. They are fine staying home, mindlessly scrolling social media, while parents meet all their needs. The result is that they are physically safer, while in far worse mental health.

Rebellion and risk-taking are markers of adolescence. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer children stay away from drugs and alcohol. However, they could at least go tee-pee someone’s lawn. It is terrifying to watch a generation lose their desire for exploration, discovery, life experience, and a bit of healthy mischief.

Lobotomized children may seem well-behaved, but they are missing something crucial. Like the docile, depressed tiger at the zoo, however safe and well fed, she is hardly a shell of the vibrant, vital creature nature intended. The absence of a rebellious, adventuring spirit in today’s youth simply indicates lost humanity. The only way to rekindle that beautiful rugged individualism is by intentionally introducing adult-like challenges and allowing children to grow more capable. Experience awakens genuine curiosity. Young children can’t wait to become heroic adults. We must restore this desire to earn the rights of adulthood through greater responsibility.

Rights Come with Responsibilities

For the right to move on to another activity, my 19-month old has to clean up his toys. Eventually we’ll stop changing his diapers and expect him to use the rest room on his own. At a young age, I’ll start teaching my kids chores and consistently transition more responsibility to them in congruence with their increased freedom. This accountability fosters self-reliance and repels the entitlement that creates indignation and helplessness among the masses of modern teens. We are trying to create strong adults- people of purpose, capable of courageously fighting for what is right and solving hard problems- not children who think it is kind to protect everyone’s feelings, or that safe spaces are the way to a better world.

The parental role is not to allow your children a perpetual childhood. Getting older and more mature, is and should be, an exciting, beautiful development. Adults get to vote, drink, decide what they eat, determine their own sleeping norms, and do whatever they please inside the confines of the law. Adults have the freedom humans have fought for for millennia. These rights aren’t given as a consequence of time, but the maturity we expect to develop inside that time. Sure you have to give up the expectation that you can ring a stranger’s doorbell and feel entitled to their candy. In exchange, you have access to the entire world. You can create your own future.

Over and over I’ve seen how young-adults are stirred by this vision. The hundreds of freshman who begin training with me every year are my most enthusiastic learners. After years of being babied and having every manipulative tantrum accommodated, they are finally given the expectations and discipline they crave. Intuitively, they want to become competent, capable, and meant for more than Fortnite binges. High expectations quickly instill a sense of pride that begins to color their worldview.

Most parents can agree to this message, but not the actions it requires. Parents of 17 and 18-year-old athletes, shouldn’t be badgering coaches for playing time or teachers to inflate grades. Parents of high schoolers shouldn’t have to email teachers for an extension. They shouldn’t have to remind kids to study, or to sign up for the SAT. They shouldn’t prevent the school from holding their son accountable for behavior and they shouldn’t want their daughter to be in easy classes that require less writing, study, and effort. Yet these are the public demands youth development culture is constantly faced with. This is why high school seniors will often come to teachers asking if they have to write the essay for their college application. Fair or unfair, right, wrong, or indifferent, it is time for young adults to practice standing on their own two feet.

Adulthood and self-reliance, rather than exciting goals for our children, have been transformed into a dreaded expiration date that society is trying to fend off as long as possible. The world shouldn’t bend to a youth’s every desire. As much as parents love their little infants and wish they’d stay that way forever, children must grow up. They’ll need to stop watching Sesame Street and ask to watch Gladiator. The proper approach to youth development is not to perpetually overprovide and overprotect. You provide and protect to a baseline level. At this threshold the focus becomes helping children become self-reliant, capable, contribution-oriented, and awesome. Adulthood is desirable.

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