Life accelerates. Always.
However, the human capacity for such acceleration does not keep pace with the time demands that ever increase. As modern life becomes more “convenient” and as we rapidly author our way through our days via electronic means, we seem to have lost our collective and individual ability to breathe, to reflect and to decompress.
Athletes grow stronger when they run or run or lift weights and then eat, rest and recover. Athletes grow weaker if they just run or lift weights all of the time, ignoring the rest and recovery part of the equation. We do the same things to ourselves psychologically and emotionally that the 24/7 athlete does physically. We break down rather than build up.
Unfortunately, we have also taught our children the same message. We have learned that children can accomplish a great many things at an early age that had never previously been expected of them. We’ve learned that kindergarteners can read. So we get them reading. We’ve learned that young athletes can develop athletic skills at a younger age than had previously been thought. So we sign them up for every imaginable traveling team and we marvel at their youthful dribbling. We are amazed at the electronic prowess of the young. So we arm them with every electronic device known to humanity as soon as they leave their bassinets. Some high school kids can academically handle college course work. So we load them academically to an extent never before tried.
All of these youthful capabilities are marvelous things that we have discovered, relatively recently, that children can do. The problem is, human capacity for achievement is not the same thing as human capacity for achieving within healthy bounds. Particularly with teenagers, we are living out a great experiment of achievement. But it is an experiment. We know what can be done but we don’t know the collateral impacts of so doing.
In the 20th century, scientists discovered a way to make liquid fat of modern oils solid at room temperature by hydrogenating the molecules of the substance. This new fat was inexpensive to produce and had a long shelf life. When traditional fats came into question in relation to heart disease, these new hydrogenated miracles became touted as a better fat replacement. We were told to eat margarine, not butter, by health experts and our government. It was healthier for us. Except that it wasn’t true. Now, according to health experts, hydrogenated fat is the only fat that seems to raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, raise triglycerides and generally lead to bad health outcomes across the board. Big oops.
In more recent times, we have been told by experts in academia and in think tanks, both left and right, that democracy is organic and will naturally flourish if we disrupt regimes inimical to democracy. In other words, if we impose democracy on people not just like us, they will love it and flourish. It will end oppression, war and human misery. The “long arc of history” tells us that. Except that there is no historical basis for any such historical arc. So far as we’ve seen up to this point, regime change seems to simply leads to different and greater human suffering. There certainly is no indication that things have improved. Meanwhile, humans die, go hungry and are homeless. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, our President has deemed the Mideast a virtual lost cause. Alas, he may be right. Another big oops.
I have four sons. Three of them are or have been teenagers. I have seen them scheduled 24/7, all with the loving support of their mother and I. And I’m having regrets. In the hopes of helping them “achieve” and do wonderful things, I have seen stress, sleeplessness, and fear of telling us when they are overwhelmed. Or perhaps they don’t know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed because they have never had the opportunity to feel otherwise. They seem to either spend all their time pursuing their achievements or, alternatively, quietly procrastinating away their time in paralyzation at tasks they find, in the aggregate, daunting.
Each child is different and we get only one chance to parent each child. Unfortunately, our imperfect parenting can only come through actually interacting. These days, there isn’t time for interacting. Family dinners, when they occur at all, are but a dash toward the evening’s sporting event, concert or other activity. At best, family dinner is something to be rushed through so that the kids can get back to doing homework or stressing about not getting their homework done. Mom and dad aren’t much help as we rush away to get more work done that we could not complete in our hectic days or to scurry off to the voluntary board meetings where we spend our time finding ways with other parents to over schedule our children.
It’s not that these time demands on young lives have gone unrecognized. The problem is, we have taught our kids to achieve but we have neglected to teach them how to cope. There simply isn’t time for the coping part. I’ve often heard how the increased time demands on teenagers, especially high achievers, will teach them how to manage their time and will prepare them for life. Except that proper time management assumes a proper amount of time in the first place in order to manage the tasks at hand. I haven’t yet encountered a proponent of such thinking who has figured out how to create more than 24 hours in a day or to allow humans to be healthy and happy on three hours of sleep. And I’ve seen a lot of three hour sleep nights from my sons, just from their scheduled activities, homework and stressing over not keeping up. I now believe that the line about teaching time management is misguided code for teaching kids to be as unhealthy and miserable as most of us adults who are promoting the over scheduling .
I’m not so sure that there are teenagers anymore. There certainly are kids that fit that age demographic and such humans still have same emotional and psychological aptitude that teenagers have always had. However, we seem to have unintentionally launched a collective experiment in eliminating the teenage years in order to see how that goes. I’m coming to fear that it may work out about as well as margarine and regime change.