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The Peter Pan Syndrome

William J. O'Malley, S.J.

Editor's Note:

"What's the matter with young people today?" is the cry echoing across the country from parents, educators, law enforcement and clergy. We inwardly shudder as we take note of the rising incidences of teen violence, suicide, drug use, and pregnancy. Worse still, and more pervasive, is the apathy and complacency that expresses itself in a lack of involvement in the community. This concerns us all, but few know fully what to do.

Father O'Malley, in his thought-provoking, four-part article, "Peter Pan Syndrome," explores these issues. In Part I, he examines how adolescence should be the time for preparing a child to take part in the adult world. Part II focuses on what is happening instead, what Father O'Malley describes as the Peter Pan Syndrome -- the "commitment to non-commitment." Part III probes the heart of the problem, our "mangled notion of what freedom really means." Finally, in Part IV, Father O'Malley offers suggestions for the future.

Part I.

Grownup and Adult

"Grownup" happens automatically; "adult" takes effort. Without any cooperation on our part, secret distilleries in our bodies start pumping out magic juices to turn us into physical grownups. Physical maturity is only a small part of the process, however, and even the young see the real difference between people who have grownup bodies and people who act like human adults. We all know people well past 50 who are less psychologically mature than many teenagers.

An individual must choose to be a human adult, and work at it. The difference between grownup and adult is a matter of self-possession: taking responsibility for who one is and what one does--no excuses, no fudging, no lies. Every grownup has a personality, but an adult has character. To the dismay of the young, "character" involves a great many qualities they have always found irksome: commitment, accountability, involvement--irksome because these qualities involve surrendering the blissful (if only apparent) freedom of childhood.

Adolescence is the slow process of bridging the abyss between childish psychological dependency and adult psychological autonomy. Erik Erikson, noted psychologist, says the two major supports of that bridge are a sense of personal identity and a sense of loyalty (fidelity, commitment, belonging). On the one hand, children must evolve the sense of self-sameness, of being the protagonists of unique stories. Yet at the same time, they must also develop a sense of involvement with other stories, knowing themselves to be contributing members of a widening community.

In return for the advantages of living in an enriching web of relationships, each of us has to contribute our fair share. Ironically, the price of legitimate autonomy is a degree of compromise and self-surrender. In order to exercise genuine freedom, we must surrender a modicum of personal autonomy in order to contribute to the whole. In return, commitment becomes an integral component of self-esteem.

In Erikson's evolutionary scheme, human life is a natural series of unsettling crises, each one a new opportunity for growth. With each new gain, however, there is a loss. After the traumatic crisis of birth, infancy ought to reestablish a sense of trust and hope. In childhood, beginning around two, weaning and muscle control offer the child the possibility of independence--at the price of all the prior pampering. In the play years, when the child is thrust away from parents among other children, he or she should develop a sense of socialization and meaning outside the sheltering but narrow scope of the family. In the school years, even wider horizons open as the child discovers a sense of skill and competence to prepare to contribute to the tribe. In youth, the individual ought to evolve identity and loyalty--a sense of "who I am" and "where I belong." This prepares the individual for the next stage of young adulthood, where he or she joins that newfound self with another in a new sense of intimacy and partnership. Finally, the goal is adulthood: the evolved individual contributing to and enriched by an even wider segment of the societal web than his or her own limited and limiting family life.

When young mothers are expecting, they read every book available on child care and belabor their friends with questions. I don't know many parents, though, who read every book available on adolescence, trying to find how they can best continually challenge their children to become more and more responsible, committed, adult.

Too often we say, "It's a phase. They'll outgrow it." I can't imagine parents of an infant contenting themselves with that. We cannot just dump the child onto the high school. It's a very difficult, time- (and patience-) consuming job, but we can't let young people coast, any more than a good parent can let a baby just eat and vegetate. We have to challenge them. Every day.

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