What’s an Adult?

and what’s a child? The notions have changed over the years.

My grandfather ran away from home at age 12 and went into show business. Given what I know of my Great-grandfather Schuler, there is no doubt whatever in my mind that my Grandfather Schuler was working from age 12 as well. Neither of them completed grade school let alone high school. My mother’s mother was working full time in her teens, eventually running away and joining a vaudeville troupe. My father’s mother worked making artificial flowers when she was in her teens.

My dad was working, delivering meals for prisoners in the City Jail, from the time he was six. My mom, quite literally born in a trunk, was working from birth. I still have the first dollar she ever earned (and her first “contract”). Unlike their parents, not only did they both complete grade school but high school, college, and received post-graduate degrees.

None of my ancestors going back at least four generations married and had children at very young ages. They were city people, town people. I think that was a country thing.

My mom believed that the secret of happiness was undertaking responsibility. I don’t know if that’s true but I certainly think it’s what marks the difference between being an adult and being a child.

Nowadays almost 40% of young people aged 18-25 are still living with their parents, a larger percent than has been the case for generations. About half are working full time. The percent of young people who are married has reached a record low.

There’s certainly one responsibility that today’s young people are undertaking in record numbers, too: debt.

Note that nothing I’ve written about is normative. The only observation I can make is that the way that today’s young people experience their lives is bound to be a lot different from the way I or those in my age cohort have. Maybe more than my life has been than that of my grandparents.

49 comments… add one

  • Jimbino

    I was a free-range kid, like my dad, who also grew up on Chicago’s South Side. We both started work at age 10, I selling door-to-door.

    Pity all those kids today with Helicopter Parents being carried around in SUVs and totally protected from life.

  • We both started work at age 10, I selling door-to-door.

    I started selling door-to-door at age seven or eight. It was a different world.

  • Don Rubovits

    I, too, grew up on the South Side like my dad. Free-range is a good term. I was riding the streetcar at age 6, alone … in 1944. While age 10 to 13, went downtown on the IC (today, the Metra Electric) and prowled around the six railroad stations, alone. During that period, rode the different transit trains to the ends of their lines, alone. While still 14, worked as a dishwasher at a Colorado dude ranch during the summer … after writing perhaps 30 letters to dude ranches in the West and receiving two offers. Yes, some things are different today. Nevertheless, today’s protection measures may be limiting kids’ perspectives.

  • Jimbino

    I too rode the streetcar on the South Side, as late as 1954, when they sadly disappeared. I too rode the IC, from 103rd St to the Loop in 1954, every Saturday, and then walked around the Loop and then down through Grant Park, regularly visiting the Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and, of course, the Natural History Museum. ALONE at age 10.

    Then I started driving tractors at our farm in Ohio, at age 12, later able to back a doubly-articulated tractor-wagon combo into the barn.

    “Why can’t kids be like we were, perfect in every way?”

  • michael reynolds

    1) Kids tend to be concentrated in suburbs. There’s nowhere to go free range in a suburb.

    2) The many Polly Klaas stories frightened parents into reeling kids in. And understand that once a significant number of kids are thus reeled in, the play environment disappears. Instead of half a dozen kids hanging out, it’s one kid wandering around alone.

    3) Play is institutionalized and then professionalized. “Everyone can play” soccer soon gives way to selective soccer and even professional personal coaching. You either get in early, or you don’t get in. Soccer scholarships, dontcha know.

    4) School is harder. Yeah, I know, all the curmudgeons will grumble about “their day” but it’s baloney. My son does 12 hours a day at a minimum. He’s on the school paper and on paste-up days they start with a Sunday shift of 5-6 hours and follow their Monday 7:30 to 3:15 day with a 4:00 to 10:30. That’s a 15 hour day, followed by 4 hours of homework. When he’s not at school, he’s asleep.

    5) Large high schools mean students are spread out geographically, so there is no neighborhood of kids to hang out with locally – everything is a drive. Ditto for private schools, ditto for magnet schools. The neighborhood school is gone.

    6) States have pushed back hard on young drivers. The process here in CA is sufficiently onerous that, given the general loss of interest in driving among texting kids, it ceases to become a thing worth pursuing. Thus more parental driving, thus less spontaneity, thus less, period.

    So, the answer to what happened to playing is easy: adults systematically killed it with paranoia, shaming of less paranoid parents, and obsessive ambition that has them driving their kids to see sports as work, school as work, time off as work, even summer vacation as work. It’s just not useful, productive work so much as “career-enhancing” work.

    Those of you without kids cannot understand how childhood has become one long preparation for some standardized testing and resumé building. There’s no time for kids to deliver papers or flip burgers – they’re all straining every nerve to get into Harvard. Acceptance rate: 5%.

    And if you think it’s easy to opt out of all that and go your own way, you aren’t a parent.

  • steve

    To modify michael’s point, if you look back at the Unz study, having a job in high school decreases your chances of getting into an elite college. Living in Belize and building huts for the poor over the summer is much better.

    Otherwise, I do feel sorry for our kids and the lack of freedoms they have. I think it is mostly due to life in the suburbs. Go hang out in the poor sections of the city and you will find plenty of young kids roaming the streets alone or in groups. (Didnt drive a tractor until I was 13. A bit slow. Baled lots of hay though.)

    Steve

  • I think there are some other factors that have caused changes, too.

    1) drugs

    I don’t remember a time before I’d seen somebody who was on drugs—the guy down the block from us sold drugs when I was a kid. But that was really much rarer then, much more a lower class thing, and much less socially acceptable than it is now. I think the lowering of inhibitions has resulted in some of parents’ paranoia being justified.

    2) highways

    When I was a kid there were no major highways going through inner city St. Louis. Everything was surface streets. Mobility fosters anonymity and declines in social cohesion.

    3) sheer number of people

  • ...

    Kids tend to be concentrated in suburbs. There’s nowhere to go free range in a suburb.

    Bullshit. There’s everywhere to go from a suburb. Into the city, into the country, and most dangerously, into other suburbs. We wandered far and wide in suburbs. In fact we wandered so far and wide that it was easy for one group of kids to reference places the rest of us hadn’t been to. (I never did figure out where The Pit was supposed to be, though I have my suspicions. But that was where the BMXers liked to go, and I wasn’t part of that group.)

    But going somewhere is as easy as choosing a direction and leaving. And we did it all the time, by foot and by bike.

  • ...

    Large high schools mean students are spread out geographically, so there is no neighborhood of kids to hang out with locally – everything is a drive.

    I don’t think high schoolers should be considered in this discussion. They’re not adults, not in some decades anyway, but they aren’t children either.

    Ditto for private schools, ditto for magnet schools. The neighborhood school is gone.

    That’s a rich person problem. Down in the lower classes the neighborhood school still exists.

  • steve

    Forgot stay at home moms too. There were always responsible adults around. Though why that would make it ok to get on our bikes and go fishing 5 miles away by ourselves at 8 y/o probably doesnt explain that. I wonder if they even suspected what we were doing with al of the M-80s we managed to stash away?

    Steve

  • ...

    Also, large high schools have been around for a long time. My high school had a larger enrollment when I was there in the 1980s than it does now (we had almost twice as many students, I believe, than the 2,000 or so currently enrolled – and that current number includes a ninth grade center, while we only had grades 10, 11 and 12.) My mother’s high school in West Virginia wasn’t as big in terms of enrollment, but it did cover a larger geographic area (not counting the busing that we had in the 1980s, which was to spread blacks out, school-wise.) And Mom went to high school in the 1940s.

    I still don’t think that should really be counted for this kind of discussion, though.

  • ...

    Though why that would make it ok to get on our bikes and go fishing 5 miles away by ourselves at 8 y/o probably doesnt explain that.

    I have this suspicion now that someone had eyes on us when we did that kind of thing. Or maybe it’s just that the parents grew accustomed to us wandering around and thus the idea of wandering off by many miles was less of a concern for them.

    I wonder if they even suspected what we were doing with al of the M-80s we managed to stash away?

    But this kind of thing makes me think that maybe they didn’t have eyes on us. That and memories of going to the nearby mental institution to see if we could spot any crazy people wandering around. I’m pretty sure none of the parents would have approved of that.

  • ...

    The stay at home parent, as steve identified, is probably the biggest change, at least for the middle class. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, when we had increasing numbers of single parent homes and homes with both parents working outside the house, there were more parents in the neighborhood during the day than there were in the 1990s and 2000s, I’d guess. Which means more children in daycare and other institutions, as Reynolds mentions. And while your parents might let you wander miles away, you can be damned sure the people running the daycare are less disposed to allow for that to happen.

  • TastyBits

    An adult is anybody over 18. A child is anybody under 18. If somebody has not grown up by 18, a swift kick in the ass is the first step in their therapy.

  • Jimbino

    Yeah, TastyBits,

    Romeo should have been condemned to public school for having kissed a 13-year-old Juliette.

  • PD Shaw

    I like a lot of michael’s comments. In terms of working, kids work because they want something and if the kid already has some laptop/tablet/smartphone device; they tend to not want much more.

  • Modulo Myself

    I suspect that post-70s economic environment has caused a huge amount of psychological inertia in adults. Children tend to emulate adults, and end up viewing life exactly as their parents view it, as an insurmountable number of sacrifices to be endured for certain benefits.

    For example, thinking back to my childhood in the 80s, I remember soccer games and swimming meets that began at four filled with parents who left work early to see their kids. I would imagine most professionals now, who have stable jobs, would be terrified to leave their jobs for a soccer game at 4 pm.

  • michael reynolds

    When I was a kid in France I took my bike and went wherever I wanted. Used to climb down into the dry moat of a Vauban fort in Fouras. http://www.photo-evasion.com/images/photo_fort_vauban_fouras_semaphore_192.jpgUsed to go to the beach. Used to go out at low tide and get oysters. Back in the States I’d wander off through the woods and climb around an abandoned cement plant and sneak into the army’s riot-training Potemkin village.

    If I let my kids do that today I’d be hearing from child protective services and rightly so. We have higher standards of safety for kids nowadays. And lest we get too nostalgic, a lot of that stuff was extremely dangerous. I value the experience, but not so much that I’d let my kids do it.

    I like “kids today” a whole lot more than “kids in my day.” But it makes parenting harder. I have video of myself at about a year old, walking around in a diaper with a screwdriver in my mouth next to a boulevard. My parents were idiots but not much different from the rest of their not-very-bright and kinda lazy contemporaries.

    And by the way, while we’re waxing nostalgic, look what the boomers grew up to be: the generation that systematically looted this country so they could buy a bigger house than the boomer asshole next door. Our generational legacy is empty big box stores, tasteless McMansions, mountains of debt, mountains of human fat and way too much self-pity.

  • PD Shaw

    family size is probably an issue here too. Larger families foster more independence. I know families with more than 10 children across multiple generations, including my mom’s and a neighborhood family and they all seem to share this trait, as well as possibly the strong desire to leave home as soon as possible. Not everybody had or has a large family, but there are far fewer today. And siblings have eyes, as well as stay-at-home moms.

    @ Elipses, To be an adult is to be independent. They can start this process early or late, but for the college-bound, its late.

  • I like “kids today” a whole lot more than “kids in my day.” But it makes parenting harder. I have video of myself at about a year old, walking around in a diaper with a screwdriver in my mouth next to a boulevard. My parents were idiots but not much different from the rest of their not-very-bright and kinda lazy contemporaries.

    My daughter (18mo) does that now. Please don’t call CPS on me.

    I very much tend to take a “free range” attitude so far. Thus far, at least, I don’t see why their childhood can’t be quite a bit like mine. As long we don’t get a place in the country. And as long as nobody calls the CPS.

    Fortunately, we’re white and well-to-do, so we have comparatively little to fear. Even so, please don’t call the CPS.

  • TastyBits

    @Jimbino

    It turns out that the House of Capulet is from outer space, and they do not age the same as humans. Apparently, a few pages fell out as Bill was on his way to the Globe Theater.

    You will be pleased to know that they do not even breed. Young Capuletians are formed from rotting tronqueds. These are tomato-like fruits that grow on Capuletico, but since they brought none with them, there are no more Capulets.

  • michael reynolds

    Trumwill:

    I take the “free range” approach to intellectual input with my kids. They’ve both had unfettered internet access their whole lives. They watch whatever they want to watch, read whatever they want to read. This, as I’m sure you can imagine, horrifies a lot of parents.

    My son is also pretty free. I let him take the ferry over to the annual gay pride parade in SF by himself, for example, and he goes to concerts etc… whenever he likes. But I would not let him waddle around with a screwdriver in his mouth. I draw the line at physical threats to their health and safety.

  • PD Shaw

    @Trumwill, you should be more specific about your expectations for your daughter, so michael and I can get a good laugh. I predict that your expectations will probably be defeated by outside forces, not your parenting style

    Also, this discussion has seemed a bit male-centric. Dave as a woman is probably not working at the jail, or wandering far and wide, getting into fights. My wife apparently did well babysitting during the school year and life-guarding at the Y during the summers.

  • My parents had a sort of different approach to our childhood entertainment. I’ve mentioned our TV viewing habits. We always read whatever we wanted to, mostly what was around the house, a combination of my parents’ kids books, their college books, and current bestsellers. Roughly once a week we’d go see a movie, usually going to the drive-in. Occasionally, we’d see a kiddie picture but that wasn’t the norm.

    Normally, we’d see movies like East of Eden, Giant, The Conqueror, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Bridge on the River Kwai, and so on. Lawrence of Arabia on a drive-in screen is pretty darned impressive. I think I saw just about every drama made between about 1952 and 1960 at the drive-in.

  • My wife apparently did well babysitting during the school year and life-guarding at the Y during the summers.

    Harrumph. I had four younger siblings. I started changing diapers at age 6 (not my own). I was one of the few 12-14 year old boys who sat for children, including infants. Including diapers back in the old cloth diaper days.

    I did pretty well sitting for families that had rambunctious boys. I could always teach them judo.

  • ...

    Romeo should have been condemned to public school for having kissed a 13-year-old Juliette.

    What, are you crazy? He’d be convicted as a sex offender and be sent to a juvie re-education camp to turn him into a transgender. It’s the only civilized thing to do.

  • ...

    Fortunately, we’re white and well-to-do, so we have comparatively little to fear.

    You have it exactly backwards. Since you are in that class of person you are expected to put your children on the Harvard-by-15 track. You’re kid better’ve mastered quantum chromo-dynamics while working for the Peace Corps in the Third World by age ten, or you are going to prison.

    Poor people, OTOH, get away with murder (sometimes literally) with their children. There aren’t any expectations on the black guy down the street that’s teaching his toddler how to smoke a stogie. Hell, people are happy he isn’t in jail and that he actually spends time with the kid. But YOU?! You’d better watch out!

  • Cstanley

    I second what PD says about outside influences. I was blindsided by the effects of middle school culture on my eldest. Having learned from that we have our second child is at a private middle school more suitable for him, but I hold no illusions that this will help as much as I’d like it to.

    Also agree about gender specificity. As a girl growing up in suburbia in the early seventies, I had more freedom than kids today but less than described by the guys here. The parents were simultaneously more hands off and more hands on…we had a lot more unstructured time but also knew that most of what happened would get back to our parents.

    The need to earn money was definitely a driving factor. I often think that my kids need to feel this hunger more but honestly it is hard to deprive them when we don’t have to (for me it is, anyway.)

    I have no doubt though that working at a relatively early age helped form character. I wasn’t quite as young as Dave and some of the commenters but started working a family run business at 13. We were selling snowballs in New Orleans- my brother put himself through Tulane and my sister funded most of her college too. I thought I’d follow the same path but during my second summer we were held up at gunpoint and Mom yanked me home. After that Dad put me to work a bit at his printing shop and I started a tutoring business until I could get my first “real job” at 15, cashier at the Winn Dixie. Did that along with working at vet clinics through high school and summers between undergrad years, along with a few odd jobs on campus. Wasn’t easy but I learned and grew up a lot, and with savings and scholarships I got out of vet school nearly debt free.

  • Jimbino

    These are all great stories. What I’d like to hear from the commentors here is: What do y0u recommend?

    –let y0ur boys wander but keep y0ur girls at home, then go on to complain that y0ur daughters earn only 77% of what y0ur boys earn.

    –toss the kids out early, or keep them home, enjoying them to 25, cooking for them to 35.

    –Send them off at 18 to Europe, S/A, Asia or Africa.

    I personally favor the last, which is what I basically enjoyed.

  • PD Shaw

    @CStanely, I think I’ve seen persuasive arguments that parents offer mostly their genes, and as they reach middle school age, their peers are far more influential on value issues. Though parents do have some influence on who the child’s peers are.

    One of my theories, explaining the changes in how children are raised, is that as women have increased their contribution as breadwinners, they’ve insisted on more investment in their children and are more invested in how their children spend their time.

  • Cstanley

    I got to thinking a bit more about the freedom of boys vs girls…I’m not so sure that there was any external restriction. Part of the issue for me was that I was the youngest so times changed and there were fewer kids around, no pack for me to travel in. And I do think that the girls tended to play on our own street, having less wanderlust than did the boys. When opportunity or boredom ensued though, I did spend many afternoons at a pond in the woods (which seemed like an exotic wilderness at the time but in hindsight was probably just the last patch of undeveloped land adjacent to our neighborhood.)

  • Cstanley

    @PD- your theory on mothers may be true but my experience is that you are forced to parent differently and plan the activities because that’s what everyone else is doing. And that is mainly because we’ve lost the critical mass of stay at home mothers, so if you just send your kid outside to play there are no companions around.

    Even so, when I “plan” the activities, I make different choices than some parents do…if I can’t give my son a neighborhood full of boys to wander with, I will send him to the outdoor YMCA camp for most of the summer where they basically do the same thing. The difference is we have to pay for counselors to play the role that adult neighbors used to play.

  • I think I’ve seen persuasive arguments that parents offer mostly their genes, and as they reach middle school age, their peers are far more influential on value issues

    I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, PD. I share more in the way of attitudes and values with my parents than my younger siblings do and I don’t think it’s because we’re genetically different. I think it’s because my parents spent more time with me.

  • On the subject of constraints on boys vs. those on girls, I have an anecdote. As it turns out my oldest sibling is a girl. At one point she asked my parents, “Why do I have a curfew but David doesn’t?” My mom responded, “What time does David come in without a curfew?”

  • steve

    PD- I think your point about mothers is a good one. Moms are having their kids later. (My wife was 44 when we had our son.) I think that changes things a bit in how kids get managed.

    Jimbino- I think you probably need ti individualize. One of my best friends sent his two kids to Europe to backpack around the summer after graduating high school. Our son has some issues that would probably make that not work for him, plus my wife would have a heart attack. OTOH, he has oxygen and propane tanks in the basement where he has worked by himself since 12 or so. Many chemicals, beakers, lasers, etc. Still remember the first time we made hydrogen. Did it in the kitchen for some reason I cant recall. Left the hole in the ceiling for years just as a reminder.

    Steve

  • jan

    I agree with Jimbino that the stories here are reflectively good reads. However, everyone had different childhood experiences contributing to who they are today — the lesson being, that a workable formula for one life doesn’t necessarily mean that when modeled on someone else has the same outcome. Fundamentally, this is because we are reactive, somewhat unpredictable creatures, ingrained with individual temperaments. And much like fabrics taking on dyes differently, so do people in how they process, adapt to circumstances, soak up and utilize the events, attributes and obstacles in their formative years.

    Consequently, recommendations and sketching out environmental/cultural suggestions may be interesting to mull over. But, it’s fairly impossible to fit all the sizes and shapes of everyone’s unique personalities, strengths, weaknesses, talents and other innumerable variations into a single ideal matrix. And, even though Tasty is also right that 18 years of age is the legal division between child and adult, the irony of human beings is that some never grow up.

  • Ben Wolf

    @Jimbino

    Best to lock your children in an unlit utility closet once they get home from school. I can tell you from personal experience they will turn out just beautifully.

  • michael reynolds

    PD:

    Oh, come on, now, Trumwill’s daughter will always be easy to get along with and just a pure and undiluted joy. Especially around 13, 14 years old.

    Actually, my daughter and I have barely had a harsh word. We get along and we’re in one of those daddy-more-than-mommy phases, so good for me, not so much for my wife who has apparently become a force for oppression and all forms of evil.

    My son, on the other hand. There’s an obnoxious 6 foot tall version of me living in my house. It’s like matter and anti-matter. Fundamentally we like each other, but with lots of yelling in between.

  • Actually, my daughter and I have barely had a harsh word.

    Not on speaking terms, eh? ;-)

    There’s an obnoxious 6 foot tall version of me living in my house.

    One was more than enough.

  • jan

    Michael,

    A quirky rule of thumb is that daughters often relate on softer terms with their father — “Daddy’s little girl” syndrome — while sons and Moms seem to have fewer trials and tribulations with each other.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:

    It’s all primatology in the end. Big old silverback rules the troop until the young gorilla starts to challenge. Much chest-beating and dominance display ensues. Younger gorilla sulks. But the silverback knows what’s coming, and so does the young gorilla. It’s time for the young gorilla to leave the troop, otherwise a real fight starts and the silverback is not at all sure he’d win. Better to send the youngster off to college.

    Jan:

    I know, but my wife isn’t liking it much. I think it’s just the way it is – the big intra-family struggles are all male-on-male and female-on-female. The boy has to prove he’s a man, and the old man has to show he’s not dead yet. The girl has to separate as well, which is very fraught with an adoptee. It’s all so tiresomely primitive, and you think you can avoid it but nope, because the adult isn’t the primary player, the kid is.

    That’s the key error non-parents make in observing or considering parenthood. They think “Oh, just do this or that and say this or that and everyone will be helpless in the face of your impeccable reason and live happily ever after.” But the kid doesn’t want reason, the kid wants and needs a fight. And just to make it more complicated, if you’re a smart parent you know they have to push back and you secretly hope they win. That is the job, after all, to love and teach until the kids are ready to say “Fuck off, I’ve got this.”

    It’d be nice if it could all be accomplished without quite so much dripping adolescent sarcasm.

  • jan

    Michael,

    You make very valid points in your parenting analysis. For some reason we do seem to be in agreement in this particular area.

    Boys definitely show a muscular opposition to even the best intentions of a loving father. I’ve seen this with our own son and his Dad. I think it’s all a part of a healthy individualization mechanism that kicks in during the teens, and lasts as long as it takes until the kid feels confident that he is competent and equal to his parents, especially his father.

    Like you described a typical parent’s thinking, that if they crossed all the T’s and dotted the appropriate i’s, giving all the love and energy possible in raising their child, the product of such devoted effort would be this great relationship. Actually, what I’ve read and been told by therapists is that sometimes the opposite is likely to happen, in that children struggle even more with parents they were close to in childhood, in their attempts to achieve their own personhood. It’s all kind of ironic….

  • michael reynolds

    Jan:

    Parents are all part of the same tribe, especially parents of teenagers.

  • Janis Gore

    I’ve found that upper middle class children are much less needy and happier after they’ve inherited.

    How one misses the days when a drunk child would come in and complain that dad was living on “their money.”

  • PD Shaw

    Janis’ dagger is still sharp. Good to hear from you again.

  • Janis Gore

    Good lord, what’s going to happen to me after I read “I am Livia”?

  • Janis Gore

    Anyway, thanks, PD. Reassure your wife that medication does help.

  • Janis Gore

    She is a psychologist, I recall.

    And happy Easter to all who celebrate.

  • TastyBits

    @Janis Gore

    Glad to see you are still at it. I have missed you and your boots.

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