The Trouble with Growing Up

Katy BurkeUncategorized

Legs of young child wearing womens high heeled shoes

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Somewhere in my teens, I developed an unhealthy fear of the deli counter. There are so many options, so many questions! You want ham? What kind? What brand? How much? How would you like it sliced? Thin? How thin? Like this? What else can I get for you? I just wanted to make a stupid sandwich. I’m embarrassed to admit this fear followed me late into my twenties. Yup, that’s right. For a decade, I paid extra for prepackaged meat that wasn’t really what I wanted and was more than I could finish, just so I could avoid the dreaded deli guy. I finally forced myself to face the man, and when I did, I realized the true crux of my fear. It wasn’t necessarily that I had to answer questions I didn’t know the answer to or that people were watching and waiting as I did it. The real issue was that I thought I was supposed to know the answers. I felt like a fraud. I was faking being an adult, and surely everyone could tell.

The trouble with growing up is that it is supposed to be this natural part of life that happens to everyone, but it doesn’t feel natural at all. It feels downright awkward. One year, you’re too young for something, and the next you’re expected to know how to do it…but you don’t. In your head, you’re pretending. A twelve-year-old acts her way through making her first purchase, hoping the cashier can’t tell. A fifteen-year-old “pretends” to apply for a job. A sixteen-year-old fakes his way through taking the bus. A nineteen-year-old puts on a performance at her first college interview. This continues well into adulthood. The thirty-something pretends to be a dad for the first year or two of his son’s life. The sixty-year-old feigns shopping for long-term care insurance. None of us really knows what we’re doing until we’ve done it. Yet, for some reason we all pretend we do. It seems a hallmark of adulthood is getting good at faking it. 

I don’t think we consciously try to be disingenuous. It’s more of a defense mechanism. When we fake it, people think we know what we’re doing, and perhaps that helps the world to run more smoothly. I’m parenting a teenager for the first time, and though I’ve taught teens for nearly twenty years, I still feel inexperienced. I don’t, however, broadcast that to my fourteen-year-old. Somehow, I don’t think it will help my case when I’m trying to tell her she can’t stay out late. I’m also fairly clueless when buying a car, but I keep that to myself at the dealership. Faking it serves a function. 

Unfortunately, this mentality also makes us feel alone growing up, like every other person in the universe knows exactly what they want at the deli counter and how to ask for it. For some, this can be paralyzing, resulting in avoidance and stunted maturity.  As parents, this is the last thing we want for our kids. We can’t do the growing up for them, but we can take some of the mystery out of it. We can normalize and de-shame the uncomfortable process of stepping out into the unknown. Occasionally, I witness parents of toddlers do this incredibly well. While grocery shopping, a mother might say to her little one, “Okay, now we line up the food on the belt. Let’s put all the cold stuff together. Can you do that?” Not only does this keep the toddler entertained, but it takes the whole process out of obscurity. It also builds a relationship in which the parent isn’t commander, but servant leader, someone the child turns to for direction and help. For teenage children, we refer to the parental role of consultant, which is very similar except that the teens have more autonomy over their actions. 

It’s hard to visualize parents of a teenager helping their child in the way described above unless you imagine a harder task: changing the oil in the car, navigating the subway, opening the pool for the summer, applying to college. Parents can do these activities with their teenagers rather than for them.  Rather than leading in an obvious way, they can work alongside their child, providing guidance casually and as requested. It’s also very important to get the tone right. Talking to a teen like a child will likely result in resentment or regression, but when parents speak respectfully to their teenage children, as they would with an adult whom they are teaching something new, teens will step up and grow up.  

Young people are also more likely to participate in new activities if they know the work will further their independence.  My younger daughter and I take a lot of walks and sometimes cross a busy intersection. Together we look for cars making turns despite the walking pedestrian symbol. She has good incentive to take on this responsibility because she knows that in a couple of years she’ll be able to cross to the other side on her own—where Starbucks awaits. On the contrary, I had no real incentive to order from the deli guy because I could just as easily buy the prepackaged meat ten feet away. It wasn’t until I had already matured that I realized this was holding me back by cementing a “can’t do” mentality that bled into other areas of my life. The opposite can be true as well. As parents we don’t have to walk through every threshold with our kids to make an impact. Just doing it when and where we can makes a huge difference because their confidence in approaching the strange and unknown will carry over into a variety of undertakings.

A second way that parents can cut the shame out of growing up is to grow up ourselves in front of our kids. We’re all still growing; there are plenty of things that we haven’t learned yet how to do. As adults, we’re just more comfortable being uncomfortable as we learn them. This is what our older children especially need to see—our discomfort with the unknown and our comfort approaching the discomfort. Though we may fake it with other adults to save face, our kids could benefit if we took down the veil while around them. It will help them to see that inexperience is normal and simply requires a little courage and trial and error to move past. They may even be able to help in some instances, which would be an incredible morale boost. Imagine an eleven-year-old helping her mother who is struggling to piece together some primitive Ikea furniture (since Ikea directions are in hieroglyphics not actual words) and how rewarding it would be for the daughter to show mom where she went wrong (true story). The best way to negate shame is to teach humility—by example. 

Adulting, by its very nature, feels ill-fitting, but we can make it more approachable for kids simply by doing some of it with them, not for them, and by being real fallible adults, not super-adults, in front of them.