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Opinion & Essays - Jun, 1997 Issue #46

Childhood's End
by: Lon Woodbury 

A few weeks ago, a friend told me his daughter still felt some resentment towards me for my role in helping him find an intensive wilderness program for her. She had been a classic case of being so out-of-control she undermined every attempt by her family or local resources to intervene. Every time her father tried to exert some control, or she thought nothing exciting was happening and was getting bored with being at home, she hit the streets for up to weeks on end. It got so bad she would come home only long enough to eat, sleep and rest up, and then she was gone again. Only locks and/or chains could have kept her from her self-destructive actions, and her parents acting as jailors would have been just about as bad as what she was already doing to herself. 

Since she completed the wilderness experience, every time I’ve stopped by their house she has always been pleasant and friendly toward me. But when her father asked her one day how she felt about me, she told him, “I got a lot out of the wilderness experience, and I know I needed it. I’m glad I did it,” she added, “but, he helped set up the end of my childhood, and that was hard.”

She has a good point. Growing up is tough!! And, the longer it is delayed, the harder it becomes. 

It is a long, complicated road to transition from birth to mature adulthood. Helping a child successfully navigate that road is one of the hardest, and most rewarding jobs a mother and father can ever undertake. But parents have to keep firmly in mind that Childhood’s End is the goal. 

For example, as an infant explores and experiences the world , he/she must learn about personal boundaries and that he/she is not the center of the universe. The road to becoming a mature adult requires the ability to accept others as equally autonomous individuals. The adolescent who still thinks they have a right to have all their demands met without question is the obnoxious teenager who will be disappointed, and is still in his/her childhood, and needs some kind of intervention. 

A young child’s world is magical. Wishes and wants are the currency of this world. An unseen Santa Claus brings exactly the presents the child wants. Adults have powers to do what the child is not yet able to understand. So the child explains all this by magic. When the child learns how consequences work, and grasps the concept of cause and effect, the child has reached Childhood’s End and becomes a young adult. The adolescent who is still thinking magically will say things like, “When I turn 18, everything will be OK,” or “Employers don’t like to hire kids because they don’t like us,” or “We wanted money, and will go wherever it is and do what it takes to get it.” Thinking like this in an adolescent can be destructive and dangerous, and needs some kind of intervention. 

A young child is dependent. A mature adult is independent, and interdependent. There is a world of difference between these, and the child must move from one to the other over the years of growing up. An adolescent who is still thinking “dependent” will be angry over unmet expectations, and has not yet reached Childhood’s End. 

The above transitions, and many others, are normal transitions every functioning mature adult has successfully navigated. Most societies have a “Rite Of Passage” to symbolize the transition through Childhood’s End. Not having this ritual in our society makes the transition less visible and more abstract. But, even without a “Rite Of Passage,” successfully navigating Childhood’s End is as vital as ever. 

When an adolescent is still thinking like a child, some kind of intervention is needed to make up for missed lessons. In essence, the child did not “Grow Up” totally, and concerted action is needed to make up the deficiencies. Usually, remedial action by parents is sufficient, often drawing on local resources such as ministers, counselors, or local programs. But, when the behavior based on childish thinking, such as the daughter of my friend, is self-destructive and extreme, a residential solution is often needed. In cases like her's, it was her thinking and assumptions as to how the world worked that was the problem. She didn’t need treatment or a therapeutic solution. She just needed an exercise into “Back To Basics” in growing up. 

In her case, it worked. And it was hard. And, I guess she has a right to mourn a little bit. That’s because all of us miss, at least a little bit, the end of those magical, self-centered days before Childhood’s End. 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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