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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. Last month, in Part I, he examined how adolescence should be the time for preparing a child to take part in the adult world. Here, in Part II, Father O'Malley focuses on what is happening instead, what he 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 II.

The Commitment to Non-Commitment

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, and adult. Parenting is 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.

The results show, however, that our whole society has failed to do that; the moratorium--the commitment to non-commitment-- goes on even after the college diploma. Recently the Times Mirror research group published a study of the changes in young adults' attitudes over the last 20 years and found them "not so much disillusioned as disinterested." There is far less likelihood today than 20 years ago that a young man or woman would want to risk commitment to public office or to lifetime service in the Church. Respondents all over the country chose as almost a life-rule to avoid all controversy simply by ignoring its existence. In 1972, of those between ages 18 and 24, 50% voted; in 1988, only 35% voted. Citizenship meant little to the young adults surveyed; the only issues to engage their concern were those that encroached on their personal freedom: raising the drinking age, legalizing drugs, threatening recourse to abortion. They have what seems at first a laudable tolerance: live and let live; every culture has its own morality; judge people only by their own standards. This, however, is not at all altruistic; it is spineless relativism. If I condemn no one, no one can condemn me. Even at 26 or 27, like Peter Pan, they have strong resentment against anything that might threaten to "tie me down."

This kind of spineless disengagement seems to riddle our society from top to bottom: 50% of new marriages end in divorce; in a recent survey, couples in line for marriage licenses were asked if they believed this union would last "till death do us part": 63% said no; more and more, we've accustomed ourselves to young people living together with nothing more than short-term commitment. That reluctance is just as evident among high school students: it is a given that parents and counselors have to hound seniors to contact colleges, fill out applications, send them in; in recent years, students survive the cuts for a team or a play but show up for practice only when it's not too inconvenient; the rise in teenage suicide rates shows that a greater number of youngsters are not even committed to living.

Youngsters do feel a genuine commitment to their steadies, and a great many also feel a loyalty to their families. But beyond that, forget it--if, again, it obligates them when it is inconvenient. Many longtime coaches and play directors remember the days when the gung-ho Knute Rockne team and the Mickey-Judy cast were almost true; there was a genuine sense of camaraderie that both called on the individual's loyalty and in turn fed the individual's sense of identity and personal worth. Increasingly in the last few years, however, students feel no more loyalty to their fellow cast members or teammates than any professional actor or athlete feels to a group who has been a necessary adjunct to personal advancement.

The human ecology is an ever-expanding web of personal relationships spreading from the lone individual, to the spouse, to the family, to the local community, to the nation, to the whole human family. Like the Erikson stages of impoverishing/enriching disequilibriums, each of these wider concentric circles is an invitation to commit oneself to live a richer, larger life than one had intended. But the evidence strongly indicates that our young--and not-so-young--would prefer to make the radius of their lives as small, assured, and easily protected as possible.

This widespread revulsion for commitment--for being tied down--vitiates all the central values on which any society is built: family solidarity, mutual trust, responsibility, ethics, doing one's fair share. Further, it is a complete and overt rejection of the core of the Christian gospel. The young--from Hamlet to Holden Caulfield--have always been balky about commitment, about squarely facing the unchangeable truths of human life and working within those constraints, about sensing that their elders have sensitive selves, too, and about yielding to the objective fact that any relationship is a two-way street: if you have been kind to me, I am obligated to you. Too often now, the rules change instead of the youngster changing--which is what adolescence is all about.

Gratitude places legitimate calls on freedom. Each year with my students I go into a long list of the gifts their mothers have given them since they were conceived. "In the first place, she could have had an abortion. She carried you around for nine months, with considerable discomfort, unable to turn over or get out of a chair, put her legs into the stirrups and screamed for some time, went through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to bring you out. She nursed you, cleaned you, gave you nearly every waking moment of her time. (Is there anyone you would do that for?) If that lady asks you to take out the garbage or pick up your sister or go to Mass, and you say, 'No,' you're a pretty mean-spirited SOB, right?" And the invariant response is: "Guilt trip!" At age 17, after 12 years of Christian education, they still do not comprehend the fact that, when they are genuinely guilty, they have an objective responsibility to set things right. For most, feeling guilty is a bummer, and should be avoided or even denied. Then it goes away.

With this type of attitude so prevalent among our young people, how can we help them become "adult?" 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. 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.

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