Forever Young

San Diego is a tourist destination and a convention town, and next week the mother of all conventions arrives. It’s Comic-Con and it will fill the convention center with film makers, graphic artists, collectors and everyone else who has a stake in the sprawling comic book industry.

It will also attract lots of hangers-on who dress up like Spider-Man and Wonderwoman, not to mention the many other fictional superheros of which I’ve never heard. The thing I find interesting is these will be adults, dressing up like superheros.

Adults didn’t used to do that. When I was a little kid the very thought of my mom and dad suiting up like the Fantastic Four would have been bizarre. Having a fantasy life was not unheard of, but we all understood that adults didn’t act like kids.

I’m constantly reminded of our extended adolescence. “College is the new high school,” a med-school student told me at a gathering. A neighbor, who rents rooms to college-age students, told me he prefers foreign students because American kids are immature and problematic.

A themed review of books in the New Yorker told of books with titles like The Price of Privilege, The Narcissism Epidemic, and A Nation of Wimps.

A caveat. Kids should be allowed to be kids and the delay of adulthood has been going ever since we started expecting kids to go to high school. But the bonds that once constrained childhood to the teens and below have been torn asunder.

So many of the truths I grew up with now seem to be part of the problem. I once thought, like all right-thinking people, that child labor was a terrible thing. Was it? Farm kids used to help bring in the crop. Was that “child labor?”

Not long ago, I ate at an Italian restaurant where I saw a kid, maybe 12, helping to clear the tables. Was he one of the sons of the proprietor? Was I seeing the exploitation of child labor or a refreshing example of one American kid being shown what it means to grow up?

The reduction in birth rates in developed counties is linked to extended adolescence in more ways than one. As people put off adulthood they put off childbearing, often for good.

Having children now means the high price of putting them through college with no clear financial rewards to their parents. The thought of raising a spoiled kid, who feels entitled to leisure and material riches, must be off-putting as well.

So what do we do? The more I think about it the more I think the answers are simple to the point of being cliche. Teach kids to show respect and understand the value of work. Think about others, not yourself. Give more and expect less.

Above all, we parents (and grandparents) need to make less of a fuss about our kids and we need to expect more from them. By “more” I don’t mean insisting on them getting straight A’s and all that Tiger Mother crap. I mean we need to  treat our kids less like kids. That will show them more respect and give them a better chance to grow up.

I can’t claim to practice all I preach. But next week I’m taking my family to Germany to visit some old friends, most of whom have never met my kids, who are 12 and 8. When they show up at their doorstep, I hope my children will act their age, not something less.

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