Monday, February 07, 2011

The American Dream That Beckons Your Teen; Let It Wait

Bill Doherty, who I cite in this blog every chance I get, raises some terrific questions in his Psychology Today essay on Abby Sunderland, the teenager who sailed around the world. He makes some crucial points about the role of modern parents in how they give guidance and supervision to their children.

When the American dream is calling your child, how do you say no?
How have we allowed our adolescents to become adults and our children to become adolescents?
And how do parents lose their moorings when children profess a dream of competitive success?

Doherty described his own family this way: “Back in the ancient 1980s, before the age of the super child, when my son asked to add a second sport to his schedule, we said sure, if you want to drop the first one. We were not yet burdened by the cultural norm that every child is a bundle of undiscovered potential that parents are responsible to uncover and develop, no matter the cost.

Of course, the young have always had dreams, but we used to think that they should grow up before deciding on which dreams to pursue as part of an adult life. From Abby’s blog: "It has been my dream since I was 13 years old and began single-handing, to one day sail solo around the world. I am 16 years old and this blog will contain the story of my attempt to become the world's youngest solo circumnavigator.” Note the contemporary twist on the familiar round-the-world travel dream: it's to be solo and the youngest in history.

We now know that the human brain does not fully mature until around age 25 on average; that means Abby has 9 years of brain development to look forward to. For now, it's the job of parents to provide the missing prefrontal cortex for their offspring.

Abby's father said: "Sailing and life in general is dangerous. Teenagers drive cars. Does that mean teenagers shouldn't drive a car?” When a parent of a minor child compares a year of solo sailing around the world, including in the South Pacific hurricane season, to driving a car in the neighborhood, it sounds delusional to outsiders. But it feels sane to parents who have been seduced by today's culture of competitive childhood where the dreams of youth distort the judgment of adults. Behind every super child is a supportive but ultimately wimpy parent.

Doherty wisely concludes: “The antidote is simple: let high-achieving children be children first, with time to grow up, and in the meantime let parents be the adults in the family.”

I encourage you to read Doherty’s entire piece by clicking here