On Being in Charge and Being Alone

 

By Daniel Tippens

If I had to capture the way I viewed my life as a kid it would be with the question, “Who’s in charge, here?” My first thought was always that I couldn’t be the one who’s in charge of my life right now, it had to be someone else. For me, my parents were in charge of my life. They ultimately either told me what I should do or confirmed that the choices I was considering making were good ones. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t think this was mistreatment on their part.

Rather, I think this was a case of justified paternalism, assuming there are such cases. When we are young we don’t have enough experience, common sense, or book-smarts to make many decisions for ourselves about the course of our lives. We need somebody with more wisdom to tell us what to do, or to confirm that the choice we are inclined to make is a good one. Of course I didn’t think that I would never be in charge of my life, but I thought that I would fit the traditional mold for taking charge; sometime between ages 25-35 I would have enough wisdom to take charge of my life.

In this essay I want to reflect on this idea of “being in charge” by telling you a little bit about my own life. This essay isn’t intended to look like a technical or even pseudo-technical essay. I won’t be making any premise-conclusion arguments. Instead, think of it as more of a stream of consciousness. I suppose my secret — that my daily thoughts are not structured but rather quite chaotic — will remain a secret no longer.

I want to start my ruminations by asking myself what I take “being in charge” to mean. Not necessarily what it means to be in charge of your life, but just “being in charge.” Let’s first start with what young, 15 year-old Dan Tippens thought “being in charge” meant. At that time, my concept of “being in charge” was the product of exemplars, and for me, this meant my parents, predominantly my dad (to be clear, I’m not saying my mom played an insignificant role in developing my concept of “being in charge.” Her influence has its place in my life). My mom is a very bright, intuitive woman and was a stay-at-home mom. She was in charge of things such as disciplinary, dietary, and general decisions throughout the day about how to care for us while our dad was at work (in which she did an excellent job). But for many other things, my dad was in charge. This was likely due to the fact that my dad had a list of achievements, whose length is at least equally as surprising as the length of one’s intestines. My dad never had financial support when he was growing up, and his father, my grandfather, struggled with alcohol. Dad received a full scholarship to attend a local university, where he studied physics. He went on to get his PhD in nuclear physics at Texas A&M University, and executed numerous experiments, including some at Los Alamos and then Brookhaven National Laboratories. But he didn’t stop there. He was a religious man and got his seminary degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. He could have been a pastor. But I won’t continue on with my Dad’s CV, the point is simply that he clearly was an accomplished man, which plausibly placed him in charge of our family in many significant ways.

So how was he “in charge” in the mind of 15 year old Dan? Well, let me first mention what he did for the family, and then talk about his own traits that seemed to constitute what it meant for him to be in charge. He made all of the decisions about finances, home-improvement, careers, where to settle down, and so on (of course this isn’t to say my mom had no role in these decisions, she certainly did, as he consulted her on many of them). My brothers and I would go to him for advice about what to do in many situations, and also to have him to validate the decisions we were inclined to make. He would not only confirm that the pendulum of our inclinations was swinging in the right direction, he would also set the pendulum in motion, by giving us ideas about what to do.

We can refer to validating another’s choices as “confirming advice” and providing another with an idea “Providing advice.” Both of these fall under what we might call “conclusive advice,” because in both cases the one being given advice winds up with a conclusive idea about what to do, thanks to the advice-giver. While the direction of our choice pendulums was modulated by our dad, his pendulum seemed to swing on its own. He never consulted anyone else for conclusive advice. He would at best ask people to weigh in on issues, but it always seemed clear that my dad would make the decision. More often than not, his decision was made before others even gave him advice. Given all of this, he always assumed full responsibility for his actions.

Noting all of these things, I came up with a general picture of what it means to be in charge. Being in charge meant not consulting others for conclusive advice, being certain about what to do in the absence of conclusive advice, and fully accepting the consequences of one’s actions. What did it mean to not be in charge? It meant to be fifteen year-old Dan: consulting others for conclusive advice, being uncertain about what to do in the absence of conclusive advice, and never fully accepting the consequences of one’s actions. I would always ask my dad for conclusive advice, which made me feel more certain and confident about what I should do. This would psychologically distribute the responsibility for my actions to my dad. After all, he always in some sense, told me to do whatever it is I’d done. I generally thought that the picture of one’s life went something like this: you’re not in charge until sometime around age 25-35. Gradually during those years, you start taking charge.

My understanding of what it meant to be in charge changed when my dad developed brain cancer. I had just finished my first semester at a small university called University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). I also completed my first Philosophy class and really enjoyed it. Since I wasn’t the best student in high school, I was also surprised when I did decently in it. I remember that I would always be eager to call my dad after class to bend his ear about God, religion, physics, or whatever else was shoved into my mind that day.

I found out about my dad’s illness over winter break, after my first semester at UMBC. I remember that I was working as a pizza delivery boy at the time, and one evening my phone died and I was without a charger. I drove home to remedy this problem, and noticed that the house was deafeningly empty when I arrived. Not that this particularly alarmed me at the time, I just remember thinking it was odd. I charged my phone and saw all the missed calls and messages from my family. “Dan, call us now” -Mom. “Danny, dad is in the hospital, call us as soon as you get this.” -Jon (my brother). When my dad had gone into work that day, one side of his face began drooping while he was talking with his boss. His boss thought it might be a stroke, and so they immediately rushed him to the hospital where they found a massive tumor in his brain. When I got to the hospital, I found out about his diagnosis. I really had no idea how my life was about to change.

Friends sometimes ask me how things are different now that I don’t have a dad. One of the first things I think of is how I went from not being in charge — and thinking I couldn’t be in charge given my lack of experience, book-smarts, and common sense — to being in charge (at least, partially).

I remember the first time I started to realize this. Several months after my dad’s diagnosis, I started wondering whether I should transfer, in order to better pursue an education in philosophy. After pillaging the internet for information on philosophy programs, NYU popped up on my radar. So now I had a question, should I transfer to NYU? I was leaning toward applying.

My first inclination was to call my dad and have a long discussion with him about this. I wanted him to give me some form of conclusive advice. But he was now sick with brain cancer. His ability to think and even his value judgments weren’t reliable anymore. His illness had taken away his authority status, in my mind, and so I could no longer consult him as such. My mother, though very intuitive and bright, didn’t have experience in academia, and so I couldn’t consult her for conclusive advice either.

While I was uncertain about whether to apply to NYU, I was pretty sure that I was not a person capable of being in charge. This, as mentioned earlier, meant I should ask others for conclusive advice, feel uncertain about what to do in the absence of this advice, and refrain from taking full responsibility for my actions. But I couldn’t do any of these things anymore. So it seemed that I had two choices: either I wouldn’t act at all, or I would act, but without conclusive advice, all the while feeling uncertain, and taking full responsibility for whatever it was I did.

When I realized this dilemma, I remember thinking a flurry of questions and entertaining a deluge of doubts. What do I need to do, logistically, in order to apply? Will I be able to work out the financial aid, if I get in? This is a waste of money, because I won’t get in. I can’t even get a damn application completed successfully on my own. There are countless more qualified applicants out there. I just started trying hard in my studies this year, and other students have been working tirelessly for this goal since the beginning of high school. I’ve never even been to New York, so how do I expect to be able to set up my life there, without the guidance of someone like my dad?

My uncertainty was coupled with fear and anxiety. What if I applied and didn’t get in? My friends and family would find out, and I wouldn’t have anyone to blame but myself. None of this “I knew I shouldn’t have applied but he told me to…” If I failed, it would be my failure, and everybody would know that.

After about a week of this kind of uncertainty and fear, I decided for the first time to just say, “fuck it” and apply. I looked over the application I had filled out, and clicked the button on my computer screen. Just like that, the decision was made. To my surprise, all of my worries and fears went away very quickly. The decision was done, there was no turning back, and my brain must have realized this, releasing the pressure valve that had been trapping in all of my emotions.

After this “fuck it” experience I realized I was beginning to take charge. I was starting to make my own decisions. I was making choices about which classes I should take, whether I should take time off from school to help my dad around the house, how to comfort my mom and dad, what to say to my dad when he asked me if I thought he was going to make it through his illness (a memory which, honestly, still disturbs me today), and how to take care of the estate (something I was fortunate to have, and continue to have, significant help with from my brothers).

Since I realized that I was starting to take charge and yet, I was not certain in the way my dad seemed always to be, I deduced that being in charge didn’t necessarily mean feeling certain and confident in what you decide to do. Being in charge frequently — probably most of the time and for most people — involves taking full responsibility for one’s actions, in the absence of conclusive advice under persistent uncertainty about what to do. There is no age or window of time when I will start to feel certain about my decisions, without the validation of others. The reasoning for me was clear: I am an average human being who is in charge. I feel uncertain about what to do without conclusive advice. Since most other people who are in charge are average, most other people probably feel uncertain about what to do in the absence of conclusive advice.

This last realization changed the way I perceived and interacted with people older than myself (people between thirty and ancient). I think I used to categorize older people as being in a different kind of class. They were wise and had justified confidence in themselves, and I was not and did not. It’s almost like I viewed elders as being a different natural kind from myself. Just as butterflies appear to be different natural kinds from caterpillars, despite the former arising out of the latter, so too older people appeared to belong to a different natural kind than I did, despite that fact that older people were once adolescents, just like me.

After the change, I began to view myself in relation to an elder as two people on the same spectrum. They certainly had much more experience and wisdom, but they weren’t different in kind from me. They, too, had their hang-ups, their idiosyncrasies, and their uncertainties. I came, I think, to feel a little bit psychologically closer to my elders at that point, and this was reflected in my interactions with them.

I learned several things about myself from this experience. I came to appreciate how I am more likely to learn from my mistakes when I make such mistakes while taking charge; I view them as my mistakes. In the past, it was all too easy for me to claim that I hadn’t made a mistake, because someone else had told me I should do whatever I’d done. As a result, I never felt there was even a mistake to learn from. But now I make decisions on my own, and sometimes, they result in failure. I’ve had papers rejected, applications denied, and other attempts to advance myself shut down. But I view these mistakes as mine, and I think I’ve learned from them, as a result.

My confidence rose, when I took charge. Accepting full responsibility for my decisions included responsibility for those that turned out to be good, as well as bad. So when I thought I made a good decision, my confidence soared. Acquiring this confidence, I think, facilitates one’s ambition to strive in whatever they find important.

I began to understand that I won’t always have someone or something to rely on to provide me with an answer. I won’t always have the luxury of conclusive advice. As such, I ought to try to figure things out for myself as much as possible, preparing for the times when I will have no reliable sage to lean on.

People have sometimes told me that I was thrust into taking charge too early. I’ll ultimately want to end the essay with one question: should eighteen be “too early” to take charge? People probably think eighteen is too early because ‘early’ is a relative term. Eighteen may be too early relative to the United States in 2015, but probably not too early simpliciter. If this is right, was there a time when eighteen was not too early to take charge? I think so. My impression is that, on average, people used to take charge earlier in life than we do now.

Though this is probably too controversial for some to stomach, let’s assume that on average people take charge later in their lives than past generations. Imagine, for instance, that forty years ago people would take charge between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, rather than between twenty-five and thirty, as they do today. What could explain such a difference?

Taking charge is typically a gradual process. There is no precise moment when somebody leaves the category of being told what to do and enters that of acting for him- or herself; this shift happens over a notable span of time. But what figures into this gradual process? I speculate that there are at least three important variables. These are things that young adults faced in the past and continue to face today, the only difference being the conditions under which they are currently faced, and when or how often young people face them. These differences, I think, have led to a generation of late bloomers.

All of these things – situations really — contribute to an individual’s taking charge, by placing him in circumstances, where he must make decisions, without conclusive advice (and in the face of uncertainty), while taking full responsibility for his actions, and in which those actions have relatively mild consequences.

(1) Caring for a sick family member, relative, or friend. Not necessarily in a similar capacity to the situation I endured, but some kind of care-taker situation nonetheless. Somebody has broken a bone, and mom and dad can’t be around all the time to manage this person’s needs. So you may have to step in every once in a while. Grandma needs some help walking around the house, and she wants to walk for a few minutes longer than you were instructed to allow her to. The consequences of your decisions are likely — or at least seem likely — to be relatively small in their potential impact, but nonetheless these are things for which you are responsible about which you are probably a bit uncertain. Being in these situations gradually helps to develop your capacity to be in charge.

(2) Career-related situations. We wonder not only about what we want to study, but also about how to secure a career in a field. So we will have questions about which classes we ought to take, which internships we ought to pursue, and how to budget our time. For somebody who is looking to avoid higher-education, the questions may be different. Most of these decisions will seem to have relatively minor consequences. After all, what’s one class in a four-year education? Or what’s the big deal about getting one temporary job right out of high-school, until I move onto a better job?

(3) Dealing with broken equipment. All of us break things or have problems with the objects we use or with which we play. When this happens, we either fix the thing ourselves, get someone to advise us on how to fix it, or have someone else fix it entirely. I’m sure you see the theme here; the decisions we make in this situation, like the others, will have a relatively small impact, but will sometimes force us to make a decision, without deference to conclusive advice.

We live in different times now. Consider the first situation — caring for a sick family member, relative, or friend. I think young people do this kind of thing much less than they used to, for two primary reasons. First, medical advancements simply prevent the number of illnesses that people will have to deal with. Second, medical advancements have not only decreased the number of illnesses we face, but have also increased our chances of being autonomous while we’re sick. Even when we get sick, there are all sorts of things out there to ensure that we won’t need to rely on anyone else while we recover from our illness. While in the past losing one’s hands meant one would never grasp again, and thus, require help from others, we now have prosthetic limbs which render this unnecessary. We not only get sick less, but we need less help, when we get sick. Young adults simply don’t have to care for family members, relatives, or friends as often as they used to.

Let’s turn, now, to career situations. Today, undergraduate education is basically a requirement. Everyone knows that the chances of having a good career significantly drop if you don’t get a Bachelor’s degree. As a result, the time at which one needs to decide what they want to do with their life has been pushed back until well into their undergraduate career or even after it. “Well I have to go to college, I can figure out what I want to do two years into the game…”

Once we get into college, our decisions become complicated. Areas of pursuit and career options are becoming increasingly competitive. Every student is trying to optimize their CV to the best of their ability. Which classes should I take? Which internships ought I to pursue? But the question arises as to what makes a CV the best? This is something that students simply don’t feel they can answer on their own. There are just too many variables to consider when deciding what will make their CV optimal.

One might think that this would increase the frequency of decisions one would make on his or her own, but I think that, paradoxically, the opposite occurs. Consider analysis-paralysis, which is when one becomes unable to make a decision, because there are too many perceived variables to consider at hand. The opportunity cost for acting out the decision outweighs the benefit of performing the action. Given how difficult it is to figure out how to optimize one’s CV — how to do college (as it is understood now today) — students undergo analysis-paralysis. Like people who are physically paralyzed, the best way to move forward is with the help of others, and so we seek conclusive advice from parents, professors, or counselors.

The last situation has to do with our earlier childhood: fixing broken objects that we use. This may seem insignificant but I think navigating these situations gets the ball rolling toward taking charge early. I also think this happens much less. Here is an adult version of the problem. Many people used to work on their cars. In doing so this would allow them to figure things out for themselves, and take responsibility if they made a mistake. But this happens much less often now. Why? Because cars are becoming increasingly computational. There are no longer simply keys and locks, there are voice-recognized lock openers and thumbprint readers. We are indeed on the path to self-driving cars. It is dubious that anyone without a computer science background could work on such cars. As a result, like in analysis-paralysis, the opportunity cost of learning how our cars work in order to fix them ourselves is higher than simply having somebody else repair it.

The same thing is starting to happen with younger teens. In the past, teens might have taken on challenges of repairing things they use or play with, such as televisions, radios, or toys. But good luck fixing a digital TV, Ipod, or computerized toys (most action figures are now at least slightly computerized). Better to have somebody else fix it for you. Why do you think Apple’s “Genius Bar” is so well-known? It is the default place to go, when you’re experiencing a problem with the tool you use the most in your daily life. The complexity not only of our education, but of our mundane tools, is stifling our opportunities to make decisions for ourselves.

To me it seems like we need to care for people less, decide what to do about our education and career later (and with a greater need for conclusive advice), and defer to the expertise of others to fix our possessions more. While none of these, individually, is necessary or sufficient to stifle our ability to take charge, taken together they are significant contributors.

I wonder what my life would have looked like had my dad never become sick. I tend to think I would still be asking who’s in charge, even at age 24, which strikes me as being too old for such thoughts. I said I was going to end this essay with a question, but instead, let’s end with three.

Should eighteen be considered too early to take charge?
When should people begin to take charge?
What would my dad say?

I will always wish I could consult him about that last question.

__________________

I would like to thank Dan Kaufman and Ashwin Mallya for helping me work through these issues in conversation. 

Daniel Tippens is a research technician in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory at New York University School of Medicine and co-founder of The Electric Agora.

Categories: Essay

Tagged as: , ,

16 Comments »

  1. The process in my case was not as conscious or as clear-cut as in yours and I don’t really think of my life in terms of “being in charge”, but I do in terms of “being on my own”, which is very similar.

    I had a bad relationship with both parents and so by age 17 I no longer relied on either of them for advice or closeness, but I sought substitute parental figures in girl friends (mothers), male friends (older brothers or uncles), some writers or philosophers (for example, Sartre) and even pop singers (for example, Bob Dylan), people whom I imagined knew more than me about how I should live my life and who were, above all, counter-cultural in some sense, alternative to the middle class culture which my parents represented and which I had no use for and still don’t. That is, I refused to accept the fact that I was on my own (Sartre could have told me that if I had read him with my eyes open) and sought salvation in others.

    In my early 40’s, as the result of a very unhappy love affair with a woman who perfectly fit the profile of an alternative lifestyle that I wanted to save me, I went into therapy and came out of it, “on my own” and accepting that situation almost happily and since then (I’m now 69), I’ve been on my own, without expecting salvation from anywhere or parental figures to
    enlighten me.

    Like

  2. I think this is a very good essay, fitting somewhat between a the familiar essay in an autobiographical mode, and an exploratory essay moving toward developing a more general construct of the issues involved.

    I’ll be honest; having had a very unhappy childhood, these issues are rather unpleasant for me to consider. I should have abandoned my family as soon as I got my first job; but I kept trying to be ‘the good son’ to my single mother, which efforts just about ruined my life.

    I think it was Freud who said that, one never becomes fully adult until one’s parents are dead. From this general observation, and considerations of my own personal experience, I think it safe to say that one only truly “takes charge” when one finds some way to put one’s parents ‘in their place’ in how one views the worlds. And one can always love them, but they are only other people, with flaws of their own.

    We never really know our parents; we know our closest friends better than we know our parents – and we should take our friend’s advice whole either, since, as well as they know us, they see us in a different way than we actually are. (I would have said, ‘as we see our selves,’ but even this view can be mistaken after all).

    ‘Accepting the consequences of our decisions’ does not mean knowing ahead of time all the possible consequences of those decisions. It means, ‘come what may.’ That’s very hard, for an animal too proud of its rationality, to accept; but ultimately, it is all any of us have. The consequences will ‘come what may,’ and we will live through them, whatever they are.

    Like

  3. Correction: “we should take our friend’s advice whole either” – We should NOT take our friend’s advice whole either” – the distinction is important; Our friends may know us, and their advice may be good; but it we who live the consequences, after all.

    Like

  4. “in charge” has connotations of authority, as well as of responsibility, I can only comment on the latter meaning.

    A significant proportion of the population have been in the workforce and living independently for a couple of years by the age of 18, so I think the question depends on the person and circumstances.

    At 18 I was in my first job and first rented flat. I was paying my own rent, cooking and cleaning for myself, so I guess I was in charge.

    Bur then again, my friend had given birth to her second child by that age and was in charge of caring and providing for them both. It is all relative.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice piece, Dan.

    I think it’s a great advantage for a child to have parents who are sensible and able to give general social and career-related guidance. But, as you point out, the question of the child’s growing autonomy and sense of responsibility is a complicated one.

    At least equally important (and complicated) as these autonomy issues are issues of love and approval. The latter are significant in early life for building a strong and healthy ego, and even as one gets older one often wants the approval of parents. Many people are driven to achieve largely to impress their parents. I’m not condemning this: it’s quite natural, I think.

    In fact, it’s often not just trying to impress (as one might try to impress a girlfriend, say) but a giving back. Saying something like: this is your achievement too.* (Obviously I am only talking about people who have a good relationship with at least one parent.)

    And when the parent/parents is/are no longer there, well, everything changes…

    * Spouses can have this shared achievement thing too, but in a slightly different way.

    Like

  6. Another piece of the puzzle of what constitutes Daniel Tippens. Good to know.

    Here is an obvious answer: The human evolved to have extended parental dependence, and this has been quite amplified in modern western culture. Whether ready or not, the child gains true “in chare agency” whenever the circumstances mandate it. This was portrayed quite tragically in the first “Hunger Games” novel, which I recently began reading with my son. While Katniss Everdeen became “in charge” by age 11, I personally was under my own parent’s domain (their home, money, authority) until about the age of 27. Regardless of what age the conversion takes place, yes it is quite important for people to develop good “in charge” skills.

    I suspect that our only child will end up taking the longer route towards such independence. The question for us then will be how well are we able to prepare him to take charge of his life, and so begin to feel personally responsible for his choices, even when he has our support and advice to fall back on? This does remain to be seen, but will be good for us to keep in mind.

    One interesting thing to me Dan, is that you didn’t discuss the natural associated conflicts. Consider the many hopes of the parent, which depend upon the efforts of the child. Thus the parent can tend to become frustrated when he/she would rather that the child makes different choices. Did you not frustrate your parents much in this way?

    Then even worse is the battle for respect which commonly plays out. Many seem to carry scars from such battles throughout their lives. Regardless of what happens, it should be considered the the parent’s job to be “in charge” of getting that worked out. These battles for respect must be minimised!

    Like

  7. Interesting essay – It’s sharing tome again 🙂

    It may sound absurd but as best as I can remember I have felt a strong sense of autonomy and responsibility from a very young age. I would say as early as 3rd grade when my parents got divorced. My mom was very emotional as was my older brother who had a lot of trouble with the divorce. Both my parents took pains to let know we were loved, although my dad wasn’t so good with support and the conflicts between my mom were continuous and had ripple effects. I was always playing the role of conflict resolver between Mom and Dad & Mom & Brother, and also had to deal with a lot bullying from my brother who was just a year older but a full foot taller still when I was in 7th grade. I had a younger sister by five years and she provided support as she got older.

    While I felt the role (calming & rational) I played in the family was important I also felt from that early time that I was going to be responsible for my own happiness to to some extent my well-being. None of the categories Dan lists played much of a role in my sense of independence. I have never been much of a fixer upper, didn’t care for a sick relative and didn’t do much in the way of career planning either.

    Of course I had a lot to learn. I remember a couple of pivotal events. One was when my heart was broken in collage. That one hit hard. So much for my emotional control. The next was a life altering illness I suffered just before turning 24 years old. I was starting my career and I though in tip top physical condition. I always loved sports, fitness health, physical competition and movement of any kind. For the next 3 years I found myself mostly bedridden, and had to move back home with my mom. It was another year before I was well enough to be on my own and probably about another 15 until I really regained full health. So much for being in charge 🙂

    I do feel my early convictions (valuing self-reliance) played an important part in my recovery. Yet the process led me to a better understanding of our fragility and inter-dependence.

    Like

  8. Hi Dan, that was an interesting lead in to a useful question, particularly these days.

    To answer your first two questions: no and it depends. History shows that the current line of independent, responsible adulthood (being 18) is arbitrary and basically nonsense. Then again, some people will never be capable of independent, responsible behavior at 60.

    I think your analysis of what allowed people to become “in charge” at earlier ages in earlier times was perhaps a bit too detailed. Basically it boils down to needs and expectations.

    All three of your points are basically covered by “needs”. People had to be more independent as families generally had to take care of themselves (not just illness and broken things), and that meant responsibilities being delegated to children earlier. There was pressure for children to fulfill roles to help a family thrive rather than just being a drain on it. And if someone didn’t have a family, or had a bad family, responsibilities were delegated to them by the fact of having to stay alive. Nowadays kids are viewed less as equal shareholders in the family’s growth than as trophies signifying the “success” of the parents… and should basically stay out of the way except to do something that makes them look good (much different than survival).

    Then there are expectations. Over the last 100 years, but especially the last 25, there has been a shift toward viewing/treating children as fragile, alien beings. Maybe to use your own analogy as vulnerable caterpillars with no similarities to the adult humans they are supposed to emerge as from their protective cocoons (miraculously all at 18 years).

    This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Earlier kids were expected to behave and train to act like grownups, making mistakes in the process (to learn). Now they are expected to act like kids (some alien, pasteurized, Disney-fied concept of kids) for as long as possible… and then some. Parents (and societies) are training them to act like these Disney-patented kids while protecting them from a grown up world. This has made the real world at best a theoretical construct, which kids then need to begin navigating at 18 on the nose. What we are getting are infants craving continued infancy… the comfort of the cocoon… and fewer butterflies.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting it reminded me of a Buddhist anecdote about how the victim of a murder wanted to get murdered. That’s a bit macabre. But it’s poignant to the point of autonomy.

    One other thing that struck me is that today we seem to be a generation lost of identity, millennials that is, because of such poor communication, texting, twittering, facebooking that is. Which is why we are one of the unhappiest generations. I can only know who I am in relation to others. Others today are rife with choice though, this sense of choice seems to fetishize future possibilities while in the moment if it doesn’t adhere to the immediate desire of the chooser it is passé and the cycle starts again. Maybe.

    Like

  10. DanT, thank you for your candor and engaging story and musings.

    The problem children had to solve when humans were evolving but close to their present form was to look around at the (somewhat) various models of adult life around them and gravitate towards one, trying out roles in play.

    Today the adult world is highly nontransparent to children, unless they run a corner vegetable market or restaurant or some such and bring the kids in early. Very likely such kids get a much more solid foundation.

    Like

  11. Hi Dan, since you haven’t replied yet, let me better address the second question… when should people begin to take charge?

    Other than when they simply have to get a job done and there is no one else to help, it is useful for a person to begin taking charge for themselves as soon as they can. Obviously a person with less experience will lack skills and so taking charge will carry more risks, but that just means they should be cautious/careful when attempting to take charge. And don’t try to take charge about everything all at once.

    At some point enough successes in enough different areas being tested gives the general idea that a person is ready to take charge completely.

    Like

  12. Hi everybody sorry for the delayed response!

    Thanks a lot for the thoughtful comments and the personal experiences everyone is sharing. I find this kind of dialogue very interesting and touching.

    Dbholmes,

    “Then there are expectations. Over the last 100 years, but especially the last 25, there has been a shift toward viewing/treating children as fragile, alien beings. Maybe to use your own analogy as vulnerable caterpillars with no similarities to the adult humans they are supposed to emerge as from their protective cocoons (miraculously all at 18 years).”

    I really like your point about expectations, and I find myself agreeing with you. We have begun to shift our expectations of youth to being fragile. Just one question for you: do you think that the direction of causality is, though. Do you think its that elders have shifted their expectations of youth which has led to them fulfilling that prophesy? Or have young people begun to defend their fragility (in cultural movements we have discussed elsewhere on this site such as at universities) which have shifted elders’ expectations of youth? You seem to think that the former direction of causality (expectation change first, youth-behavioral change after) is the right one.

    “Other than when they simply have to get a job done and there is no one else to help, it is useful for a person to begin taking charge for themselves as soon as they can.”

    I agree with you to an extent. The thing I keep on thinking, though, is that there is certainly value to allowing kids to have a period of time where they are relatively responsibility-free. I find myself thinking back on these days and being glad that I had some time to be free of cares. Seems like something good for all human beings to have for awhile. So if you agree with me, the question becomes, how long should this period of care-free life last?

    Hi Hal Morris,

    “Today the adult world is highly nontransparent to children, unless they run a corner vegetable market or restaurant or some such and bring the kids in early. Very likely such kids get a much more solid foundation.”

    Could you tell me a bit more about what you mean when you say that the adult world is highly nontransparent to children? I have a general idea and am inclined to agree, but want to hear more about this before I commit to anything.

    hi kouts,

    “One other thing that struck me is that today we seem to be a generation lost of identity, millennials that is, because of such poor communication, texting, twittering, facebooking that is.”

    Can you tell me more about how you think mass social-media use is stunting youth’s ability to take charge? Like with Hal Morris’ thought, I think there is something to this, but would like to hear more.

    Hi Philosopher Eric,

    “I suspect that our only child will end up taking the longer route towards such independence. The question for us then will be how well are we able to prepare him to take charge of his life, and so begin to feel personally responsible for his choices, even when he has our support and advice to fall back on? This does remain to be seen, but will be good for us to keep in mind.”

    I find this to be a very constructive thought which suggests a question: assuming we are taking charge too late now adays, what can parents do to promote having their kids take charge earlier? I tend to think Dbholmes’ comment suggests a general answer to this: change the expectations we have of them at certain ages.

    “One interesting thing to me Dan, is that you didn’t discuss the natural associated conflicts. Consider the many hopes of the parent, which depend upon the efforts of the child. Thus the parent can tend to become frustrated when he/she would rather that the child makes different choices. Did you not frustrate your parents much in this way?”

    I think I did frustrate my parents in this way. For example when I was 17 I went to a house-party which was busted by the cops, and my parents were quite upset that I was drinking. They would rather I didn’t drink, and it frustrated them when I did. But I’m unclear how this related to the idea of taking charge. Could you elaborate?

    ps. I’m not a big fan of the hunger games because I think its basically a rip-off of the Japanese novel that preceded it called “Battle Royale.”

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the compliment on the essay, much appreciated 🙂

    “At least equally important (and complicated) as these autonomy issues are issues of love and approval. The latter are significant in early life for building a strong and healthy ego, and even as one gets older one often wants the approval of parents. Many people are driven to achieve largely to impress their parents. I’m not condemning this: it’s quite natural, I think.”

    I think this is a great point, and certainly resonates with me personally. Even long after my father died (today, in fact), I find myself wondering what he whether, or what, he would approve of with regard to my decisions and actions. I could certainly see this playing a role in taking charge, as this desire to impress could be a motivation for going to one’s parents for, or accepting their, advice. Would love to hear more on this.

    To the rest of the commentators,

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences, I loved learning about you all and relating my own experiences to yours 🙂

    Like

  13. Dan

    As I said, I was talking about cases where there is a close relationship and genuinely shared values. The child could be seen as carrying those values forward into the future. Obviously there could be cases where this is an unhealthy thing (e.g. where the child just uncritically accepts a parent’s view of the world). But in a case of mutual respect and love between a parent and grown-up child, this can be a central motivating factor for the child – so that when the parent(s) die(s) there can be a big change in how one sees the world (assuming you don’t imagine dead parents as being somehow still around). My experience is that it takes a lot of the fun out of striving for success, etc., and I have seen some very grown-up children really go through a bad crisis at the death of a loved parent: this is pretty common, I think.

    I have been closer to my mother than I was to my father who was 15 years older than her and a bit distant, though he didn’t want to be. (He had been traumatized by war experiences.) I got on with him, however, and generally had his love and approval. Since his death I have come to see more clearly how he influenced me.

    Like

  14. Isn’t one reason why the adult world is not transparent to kids is that adults want it that way, don’t want kids to see what they are really up to?

    Most of us, as we become older, compromise our youthful ideals while often we continue to play lip service to them and we don’t want our kids to see that. Our kids generally have a fairly idealized view of who we are and what we are up and we pray that they don’t see through that. I’m not claiming that most of us are monsters, just that we are a bit more corrupt than we pretend to be to our kids, a bit more selfish, a bit more cynical about our proclaimed values.

    Like

  15. Hi Dan, my idea is that expectations changed first. However it was a slow process and I would not reject the idea some behavior changed as well, feeding into the expectation and so enforcing/expanding it. And at this point it is sort of a self-perpetuating system where (some) kids have the ingrained expectation as a norm, and defend it.

    … there is certainly value to allowing kids to have a period of time where they are relatively responsibility-free. I find myself thinking back on these days and being glad that I had some time to be free of cares. Seems like something good for all human beings to have for awhile. So if you agree with me, the question becomes, how long should this period of care-free life last?

    It should end? 🙂

    Seriously though it makes sense to start with few to no responsibilities (if that is possible) as kids get to learn basic skills regarding movement and communication. After that let them try out periods of responsibility. It is hard for me to say a specific age where more or most of their activities should/could be autonomous. This is doubly hard given the state we are in, with expectations people can’t handle basic life experiences until 18-21.

    That said, when a state of full responsibility is reached (possible) I’d still advocate allowing people to have “time off” without such extensive responsibilities. That is kind of what vacations are like, but really the US can learn a bit from Europe on this and allow enough time off that it is not simply recharging one’s batteries in order to get back to work. For example, the head of Virgin was discussing letting employees take time off basically at will and for extended periods so that when they come to work it is because they want to take on that responsibility… not just being there to get the paycheck.

    Even if fewer in number, care-free experiences should not simply be part of childhood.

    Like

  16. Dan you’ve asked me how decisions which potentially frustrate a parent, might relate to the concept of becoming “in charge.” But I believe that we simply become in charge, when we are indeed forced to (and regardless of our proficiency). Parental perceptions of a child’s responsibility should instead affect how willing a parent will be to entrust a child with more dangerous kinds of responsibilities.

    No I actually don’t assume that taking charge earlier is better than later, though it obviously does move things along more quickly. I simply believe this is better for a person if it does bring him/her greater happiness, though otherwise will be worse.

    I may have left the nest late, though I most certainly was not a sheltered kid. In the 70s and 80s we were left to our own devices in the neighborhood, and my university days in the 90s were about the same. We certainly had our experiences, as well as got ourselves into trouble from time to time. I believe that these times did help teach me about “life” (and my present “Physical Ethics” theory emerged way back then) but did they also help me become “in charge”? No, I can’t say that they did.

    Come what may, but we shall keep our son in sheltered environments for quite some time. I always figured that I would be able to educate any child of mine about the “realities” (rather than the “moralities”) of our world. Today I’m no less convinced.

    Like