What Does “Age Appropriate” Really Mean?

May 25, 2007

I was listening to a report on the radio a few days ago and the commentator, trying to explain some trend among college students, referred to their “age appropriate” sense of invincibility and difficulty delaying gratification. Now it’s true in general that adolescents don’t judge risk well and think they’re more capable than they really are, and it’s true in general that delaying gratification is a sign of developing maturity. But it struck me as odd that a journalist would expect young adults well past physical adolescence to act like children.

This is a trend that is growing and spreading, destroying reason in its path. Decades ago adults were likely to expect young children to exhibit more consideration and self-control than we now know their brains and bodies are capable of showing. They expected polite manners in restaurants and children only speaking to adults when addressed by them. High school juniors and seniors were treated as young adults about to be working and caring for themselves.

Today people bring their toddlers to adult movies and keep them in the theater, even when they’re screaming and shrieking. They don’t get up and leave the theater, respecting the rights of the dozens of other people who bought tickets. They move to the end of the aisle or maybe a little closer to the door, but they stay in the theater watching the movie. Tantrums are “age appropriate” so somehow that means all of society is supposed to endure them.

What happened to reason? It is age appropriate for a two-year-old to throw a fit to get his way sometimes, or just to do it because he’s frustrated or overwhelmed. But that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t remove the child form a situation he is disrupting, or that they should tolerate being hit and screamed at.

Parents let their young kids run wild in restaurants, at church, and at school activities. They climb on things that aren’t for climbing and chase each other around, bumping into people and sometimes causing big messes. Restlessness and recklessness are “age appropriate” so parents don’t try to prevent the collisions and messes. They don’t step in until things fall apart, but only if they notice.

Wanting to be wild and silly is age appropriate for young children, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the time and place for it. Remember indoor voices and outdoor voices? Remember indoor games and outdoor games? Our parents understood the distinction and the reason. What’s happened to parents?

Wanting to spend every waking moment with friends is considered “age appropriate” for children starting at some age, which seems to drop lower each year, and now seems to be hovering around nine or ten. It’s true that social belonging is a genuine developmental need, which peaks in late adolescence and early adulthood. It’s connected to belonging to groups and establishing an identity, and to finding a romantic partner. However, it’s absolutely NOT age appropriate, healthy, or necessary for children and young teens.

It’s age appropriate for kids to develop interests outside their family, increasingly as they grow older. But it’s not age appropriate for them to despise or shun their parents—EVER! That’s a recent phenomenon in American culture and to a lesser degree in other Western countries. But it’s uncommon in most cultures today and was uncommon in our culture decades ago.

Our children’s security and stability, long-term identity, and deepest support come from family, especially dedicated parents. Replacing that with the whimsical acceptance and demands of peers who are children themselves robs our kids’ lives of that centered, grounded certainty they need to get through difficult challenges.

Wanting to experiment with alcohol is considered “age appropriate” for teenagers, so regardless of what the law says some parents expect and tolerate a certain amount of underage drinking. Some even provide the alcohol for their teens as long as they stay home while drinking! Some parents believe the way to respond to adolescents’ developing sexuality is to talk about “safe sex” and make sure condoms are available. Since the desires and feelings are “age appropriate,” they assume the behavior is, too.

It’s age appropriate for three-year-olds to want to eat all the ice cream in the carton. But that doesn’t mean we should let them. They want many things that aren’t healthy or good for them, like avoiding naps and refusing to go to bed when they’re tired at night. Kids at all ages will want things that aren’t good for them. Those wants and drives may be “age appropriate,” but acting on them is not.

Rude and insolent behavior in children and teens is tolerated because the pop culture says, “They’re just going through a stage,” or, “You know, it’s that age.” Understanding the feelings, the wants, and the drives of our children gets conflated with tolerating their offensive behavior.

Part of the problem, I am convinced, is a culture that idolizes adolescence. We rush to move our children into an adolescent world at younger and younger ages. Then we prolong adolescence, letting them live at home rent-free well into their twenties with no clear goals.

Another part, possibly the biggest, is our fear of saying “no.” I think many parents believe they have to allow all expressions of feelings in order to respect their children’s feelings. They don’t see the elegance of saying, “I see how very angry you are, but I’m not for hitting. Use your words.” They don’t understand how respectful and empowering it is to say to a child, “This isn’t a place for screaming. You can use a quiet voice and stay here, or you can go outside if you need to scream.”

I slip into despair sometimes watching parents struggle with their children and hearing their comments about how overwhelming it is to raise them. But I try to focus on hope, which comes from remembering parents who learned a little information and a couple of new techniques and completely changed their relationships with their children.

I want to bring that hope to people. I want to help them understand their children and their role in their children’s lives. I want to empower them to raise their children to become amazing and competent people. But I stumble over my frustration at the lack of effort and commitment I see and the growing tolerance of rude and offensive behavior. I’m too young to be so cynical. It’s not age appropriate!

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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