Probably the best thing I read in high school was a story called Bartleby the Scrivener. If you haven’t read it, it’s about an adult who gets hired for a fairly menial job and then manages to refuse to do it (or anything else) so charmingly that his whole office tolerates his lack of industry and keeps him on staff. Eventually, Bartleby’s refusal to do anything leads to his incarceration and death of starvation, despite his former employer bribing the guards to give him extra food. There’s probably more to it than that, but to my young mind the romance of declining to engage was plenty to chew on.
The important thing to note here is Bartleby’s constant refrain in the face of responsibility: “I would prefer not to.” I can’t tell you how often this comes up when working with my adolescent clients - their parents come to me terrified that their children are squandering their precious time as young people with flexible minds. And they’re right, of course; anyone who has ever been a teen can tell you that chilling out feels great.
Anyone who’s spent any time as an adult, though, knows that chilling out can be a trap. Who has the time? By the time the weekend rolls around, you’re so frantic to re-energize and spend time with people you care about that you can’t even enjoy it. You overpack your schedule with all the things you have to do around the house and all the things you want to do for pleasure and, hey, it’s6:30am Monday morning. Learning a new skill at this point is decidedly out, and we all regret not taking Spanish class more seriously. “I bet they’d give me that raise if I was bilingual” we say remorsefully to ourselves.
As adults, we have lived enough life that we can look on what we’ve done and, in addition to the joy we feel, we also, inevitably, regret things. This is painful, and because we care about our children, we wish to protect them from this pain. That’s a beautiful desire, but it’s unreasonable in this world of change. Not surprisingly, unreasonable desires usually get expressed unreasonably. When I talk to my younger clients, by far the majority of them report being completely stressed out by their parents’ strong desire, spoken or not, for them to do more with their time.
My teen clients have a different take on things than their parents. Between the stresses of fighting their biology to wake up on time for school, stay awake at a wooden desk for the better part of the day, complete homework that insults their intelligence every night, while also discovering what it means to be self-authoring and navigating the fresh dangers of having a social life in light of immense pressures to already be preparing for a job, learning a new skill inevitably takes a sideline to processing what it means to grow up. And since most of us are unable to process our teenage years with our family, we do so with our friends.
So this puts us all at a really tricky impasse, more frequently expressed as a Mexican stand-off. Parents want their kids to turn their extremely valuable free time into skills and interests that will benefit them as adults, teens want to do what they please with their lives. Is there a way everyone can get what they want here? Maybe we can learn something from Bartleby: given the choice, everyone would prefer not to be an adult. At least, that part of us that still loves Cadbury eggs and wrestling with the family dog wouldn’t. Being an adult is super hard! Doing so skillfully demands a level of discipline, self control, insight, and initiative that can be totally exhausting.
The thing about being a young adult is that it really, vividly feels like you still have that choice. And in many ways you do - I’ve lost count of the times I sulked my way into someone else doing the dishes in my life. And not just as a teen, but all the way through my twenties. Depending on your circumstances, you can prefer not to step into the adult world for a long time in our society. But as all adults know, this creates a debt that will be paid in remorse someday. We all have to grow up sometime, and for those of us who have done so we understand that growing up is worthwhile but very scary.
So: what can parents do to help their children in this time? Ultimately, that’s different for every family, even between one kid and another, but it always starts the same way: understand. Understand that what looks like total inaction on the surface is almost always a cover for massive, churning anxiety. Teens are smart, and their views are unjaundiced by the compromises of long life, and they see clearly the struggle they have to step in to. If you can let them know you get it - and you do get it, you’ve been there - and then show them the benefits of taking that on, you’ll be setting the stage for their success.