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Embrace your inner adolescent

02.06.06 | 3 Comments

Last week I waited on a couple and their almost-five-year-old grandson. As I was walking them through the restaurant to find them a table, Grandson grew very excited when he saw our biggest booth.

“You can sit there. A big boy can sit in a big booth,” I told him.

He mumbled something in response. Rolling her eyes, Grandmother translated, “He says he’s not a boy today. He’s a skunk.”

I remember my little brother at Grandson’s age spending several weeks pretending he was a dog, so I was amused. Grandmother was not. When I returned to the table with some water, I overheard Grandmother telling Grandfather, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

Later, I saw Grandson pointing to a wadded-up napkin. “Look, it’s a mouse.”

“No,” Grandmother corrected, “that’s a napkin.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Grandmother was not being a very good grandmother that day. Whatever her reasons, she was not appreciating her almost-five-year-old grandson for who he is. She was treating what is childlike as though it were childish.

The division between “childlike” and “childish” is well marked in this society that worships regularly at the Cult of the Child. One we appreciate, even adore, and the other we scold. One, we feel, is appropriate and valuable, the other shameful and immature.

And yet we have no such division for adolescent behavior.

Only today I found myself bewildered that Daily Dose of Dave didn’t know what forking a yard was. I have fond memories of lock-ins where the church’s youth and college groups would each fork and teepee the other’s location. (Lobbing water balloons inside the parsonage earned you extra points.) Or how about shoe polishing a car? Or chalking a driveway?

We have an odd relationship with adolescence in this society. We simultaneously glorify it in media but black it out of memory as adults. Don’t believe me?

Imagine yourself at age fourteen. See? You’re already cringing. Now go and tell someone about fourteen-year-old-you, someone you don’t know that well. I bet it would be a lot easier if you could pick four-year-old you instead.

I was a terrible teenager, and by that I mean that was very, very good. No trouble at all. Not even a single detention. My mother grounded me once because I dared her. No beer, no pot, no sex. And it embarrasses me. I’m ashamed of myself for even saying it.

But how could it be otherwise? If the work of children is play, then the work of adolescents is talk. As adolescents we learn to play adult games, and to play them 24/7, just like adults. Why shouldn’t we embarrass ourselves? We’re playing for keeps for the first time, after all, and we’re bound to lose a few hands.

Perhaps because of this embarrassment, we erect thick walls of silence around our adolescent pasts. And everything adolescent becomes embarrassing or shameful. But was it really? Was all of it really that shameful? We adults take adolescence so seriously, as though we were still adolescents ourselves.

In early December I waited on a table of about ten teenagers in tuxes and formal dresses. “Y’all going to a monster truck show later on?” I asked, trying to ask the obvious without, you know, asking the obvious and thereby embarrassing them.

No, there was no truck pull, and no Christmas dance (that would be the following evening). They were throwing a protest Christmas dance that night, to thumb their noses at the petty shallowness of the real one.

I was proud of them. Sure, throwing a protest Christmas dance is just silly, but it’s also charming in its own way (unlike most real Christmas dances). Sort of like Grandson pretending to be a skunk.

It’s a shame there’s no “adolescentlike” and “adolescentish” to mirror “childlike” and “childish.” We’re so desperate to leave adolescence behind that it’s not surprising. But it’s a shame nonetheless. There are some, even many, parts of adolescence worth cherishing.

For all our talk of embracing your “inner child,” why isn’t there any talk of embracing your “inner adolescent?” If it isn’t insulting (though perhaps a bit peculiar) to say someone is acting childlike, why should it be insulting to say someone is acting “adolescentlike?”

I’d say more, but I have a yard to fork.

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