When my book Why Grow Up? was published last year, I didn’t expect that its most enthusiastic readers would be under 25, but time and again I’ve had he pleasure of meeting a young reader who wished to thank me, profusely, for writing it. My own children were less impressed. “It’s nice, ma,” said a 23 year old daughter. “But we’ve been hearing those kinds of things at the dinner table for years.” Like every honest parent I know, I’m acutely aware of how far my own parenting diverged from my ideals. But at least my children got certain messages at the dinner table that others did not.
With any luck, the years between 16 and 26 are likely to be the hardest of our children’s lives. It’s a time when young women’s faces and young men’s muscles are radiant and blooming, but underneath lies a torrent of doubt. For it’s likely to be the first time they have to make significant decisions on their own, and every decision feels fateful: this love story, this course of study, this job will determine my life’s path once and for all. They’ve yet to know that few mistakes are final, few courses of action irreversible, and the pressure they feel to get everything right is compounded by the message that they are meant to be thoroughly enjoying—or at the very least not wasting—their youth.This message is so pervasive that it’s likely to cause panic: if I’m torn and uncertain now, what can I expect of those times which, everyone assures me, will only get worse?
This, I believe, is the point. By describing life as a downhill process, we prepare young people to expect—and demand—very little from it.
I surely don’t mean to suggest we should dismiss our children’s early struggles: they must be taken seriously, if only because the decisions they struggle with today are practice for making better ones tomorrow. But it’s crucial that we offer them a vision to which they can aspire. We can only do this by refusing to join the chorus that holds growing up to be a process of giving up our hopes and ideals, and accepting the limits of the reality we’ve been handed, and by leading adult lives that are as rich and adventurous as possible. We need to portray growing up as itself an ideal—one that is never achieved in entirety, but all the more worth striving for.
This isn’t a message most of us project. We are far more inclined to praise those people whose lives haven’t stood still for being “young at heart”, or to compliment a friend for looking younger than she is, and we’re unaware of the implications such apparently harmless banalities convey. We don’t stop to think how our acceptance of an equation between looking young and looking good, or being young at heart and being open to the world, spells our own doom, but it does—for it suggests we can only appear to be appealing when we appear to be what we’re not. Many of the more honest among us try to avoid that duplicity by taking the bull by the horns and joking, round about the age of 50, about being over the hill—by talking, for instance, about a senior moment when they forget something that anyone in their thirties might just confidently dismiss as unmemorable. I always found such jokes painful, and slightly buffoonish, reflecting unnecessary help—or haplessness—in the joker, but it’s only recently that I began to think about what such apparently harmless banalities do to the young. When they see us longing to return to an age they long to get over, what futures can they have in view?
What surprised me as much as the enthusiasm of young readers of my book Why Grow Up? was the dismay of many adults on hearing the title. Some of the finest adults I know reacted by saying they were doing their best not to grow up; several even amazed me with the information that their hero was Peter Pan. Peter Pan’s status as an emblem of our times has held steady for a hundred years and the fact that 2015 saw different new stage productions in London, New York and Berlin, suggests that he’s likely to be with us for some time. For those who view him as hero, Peter Pan is a symbol of rebellion against a system that seeks to bend us into shapes that fit a society so burdened it no longer knows how to live. When we’re surrounded by voices that urge us to play the parts that have already been written for us, Peter Pan seems a rejection of resignation.
But what if we’ve got it exactly backwards? What if we live in a culture that doesn’t really want grown-ups—for self-obsessed, infantile subjects are easier to manage? This was Kant’s claim in his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” however often it’s been ignored. And if that’s true, what better way to keep people in self-imposed immaturity than to present such a dismal vision of adulthood that no one with soul and spirit could possibly aspire to it? Then it isn’t Peter Pan’s rebellion that is genuinely subversive—but, on the contrary, the decision to embrace growing up, with all the freedom and self-determination it implies.
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Susan Neiman with Francesca Klug, Human Rights and Values for Our Times, is at Jewish Book Week on 21 February 2016,