Since last week’s blog was about pot, it made me think I should blog about pan too. Peter Pan is a beloved children’s character who lives with the lost boys in Neverland – he remains a boy forever and never grows up. In many ways, modern culture is like Neverland; especially teen culture.
The results are easy to see: teens have trouble fulfilling minimal responsibilities like cooking one meal a week for their family, many 25-year-olds still don’t know what they’re doing with their life, half the audience of kids’ shows like “SpongeBob” are adults, and many middle-aged adults try to act like teens. The causes are a little trickier to discover. If we discover the causes, however, we will be able to offer a solution, a way to help teens mature.
Rather than starting with something systematic, I want to start with the experience my dad gave me as a teenager which allowed me to escape Neverland. My dad is a landlord (but not a slumlord) and so he would often get me to help fix or clean houses and pay me for it. He started when I was quite young – I guess 11 or 12 – where a few times on a Saturday, he’d asked me to come along with him to be a pair of extra hands on a project. We worked together. A little later on, he and I would work on different projects but in the same house and then at times he would leave me and go do something else while I was working. By the time I was 16, Saturday morning began by being given four things: keys to the truck, keys to the house to repair, a list of things to do, and often money to buy stuff at the hardware store. I have not met too many 16-year-olds who could be given that responsibility, but because of the way my dad prepared me, I could.
What is the principle? I call it “depth-confidence.” It is slowly giving young people more and more responsibility, which we train them for and truly trust them with. Unless failure means months in a cast or mortal sin, the lesson is often more valuable than what they lose by failing. This gets them out of Neverland.
Since this might sound abstract, let’s give a few examples:
- If Johnny is responsible for bringing the cookies to youth group and he fails, the teens will go without a snack today. At the same time, both he and all the other teens will realize from his failure and the peer pressure that they too are responsible when it’s their turn to bring the cookies.
- As kids get older, they should slowly be given more freedom to walk around the neighborhood. I remember I met one of my childhood friends because when I was about six, my mom let me circle around the block (technically the block across the street as our block backed onto a relatively busy street). When I was 12 or 13, a friend moved three miles away and I would ride my bike to his house.
- When I was a young teenager, my mom figured I should learn how to do my own laundry but in the process, I learned economics. I didn’t want to do it; but my sister was willing to do it for part of my allowance (I think it was 25¢ a load but don’t quote me on that). However, after a few weeks, mom found out and thought that learning responsibility was more important than learning about economics. For several weeks she watched me do my laundry – I’m sure that for those weeks, she could’ve done my laundry in less time that she had to spend watching me do it poorly but she wanted me to learn how to do it so that I could take on the responsibility.
Of course, there is a huge degree of prudence here. Don’t entrust a jackhammer to a 65 lb. kid (without training, I wouldn’t entrust one to a 265 lb. adult). Obviously much less extreme examples exist: if my dad had entrusted me with finding drills, paintbrushes, etc. then take him to a house and use them without first training me, it probably would’ve been a disaster. In my youth ministry, I had exactly this problem: I thought that properly prepared teens at 15 or 16 could be leaders in a youth group, but I once picked a kid who had not taken on previous responsibility in the youth group and was not prepared – he was a disaster. Overburdening teens will often cause them to escape back into Neverland.
Neverland might seem fun, but it never reaches the greatest fulfillment. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin notes that there are various kinds of happiness, but the most satisfying is challenging happiness. We are actually happier solving a puzzle or painting a picture then we are lounging in front of a TV. Neverland reduces all happiness to mere passive enjoyment. That’s a very unsatisfying life.
Those of us who are parents or work in youth ministry have to fight really hard to help teens escape Neverland because in our culture Neverland has become the default. Responsibility is also fundamentally Christian (I developed this in depth in my blog post “Overprotective Parenting Is Unchristian”). Unless teens learn the joy of completing a challenge, they will never become successful adults. Even Peter Pan is disappointed at the end because he doesn’t grow up.