I’ve just spent the weekend with my daughter, who is 12 and my nephew, who is 9. It surprised me to see the changes that have happened for her since they last hung out together. Temperamentally well suited, they have both got lively imaginations, and in the past have played happily together for hours, engaged in imaginative role play (mostly, when he is around, with Lego).
And it was a delight to be with him – mostly, he just wants to play – and engage others in play. Climbing the lookout-cubby house at the playground, collecting new friends on the “roundabout” (what do you call those things?) as they enjoyed whizzing around, hanging from it, tumbling off, grabbing every stick he went past and giving it a careful assessment for its potential as a club, walking stick, magical staff or gun.
But something has shifted for my daughter since he was last here a few months ago. It’s certainly the case that things are beginning to shift around inside her head and body as she approaches adolescence. There is no denying that the changes are huge. (1) The way it seemed to be manifesting was in a reserve, a holding herself back from active play, attempts to differentiate herself from him, as being “past that now”, and more aligned with adult concerns and pre-occupations.
But I couldn’t help wondering if she was more trying on the idea of being older and more sophisticated than actually being older and more sophisticated. (Certainly, whenever she forgot herself, it wasn’t hard for her cousin to enlist her in some good old rough-and-tumble play, rolling around like kittens, or an imaginative scenario involving sticks found on the walk in the bush. The “little girl” in her isn’t that far under the surface!)
It made me think – what would adolescence look like if being younger was clearly just the best thing to be, rather than something which you would want to move away from as fast and as soon as you are able? What would it look like if my daughter hadn’t heard such derogatory things, as (when the girls in her class weren’t behaving co-operatively) when her teacher asked if they wanted to “go back to kindergarten” as if there is something fundamentally wrong and undesirable with kindergarteners?
We sat through the election this weekend, and that was the occasion of interesting discussions about voting and democracy, but she couldn’t understand why young people can’t vote. What would adolescence look like if consulting young people about what is important to them was something deeply integrated into policy making and political manoeuvring?
As Patty Wipfler says about young people in her excellent booklet “Supporting Adolescents”(2):
“They live in a society that hasn’t decided that its young people are precious. It’s a real shock to [them] each time they find themselves less than welcome, less than treasured, or blamed when they need help…they operate in a climate that can be impersonal and often overtly hostile toward young people, toward them.”
In the face of this, young people target one another, and, somewhere in their mind, begin to believe it about themselves. As Patty Wipfler says again:
“They begin to treat other young people with the same disrespect they themselves have been shown. Young people habitually belittle each other. Rejection of young people by young people runs rampant through our schools.”
And as adults, aren’t we often struggling with the damage left behind by not having been well supported as young people? There’s a young person in all of us, who fought to be heard, who wanted things to be right, but who, somewhere along the way, had to admit defeat.
What if my daughter wasn’t running headlong into an idea of how everything is better once you are “grown up”? What if she hadn’t internalised the idea that older is better? That standing back is better than immersing yourself deeply in play? That play isn’t “real” or to be taken as seriously as the “work” that adults do?
What if she really knew that all young people are wonderful, fully human, with minds that are often far more flexible and creative than adults’, and that all she lacks is experience? Which will come, in good time.
1. If you would like to know more about these changes, while you still can – and it will only be available for a few more days- you might listen to this talk by Karen Young, which is part of the series put together by Anya Manes “Talking to Kids About Sex”. Karen is a psychologist and outlines what is going on in your teen’s brain. If you haven’t heard this stuff before – or even if you have – it’s worth a listen. She outlines the push toward risk taking, changes to dopamine release, increased social engagement, shifted sleep cycles, differences in how they read emotion (less mediated by the pre-frontal cortex, inclined to see threat and negative intent where there is none). You’ll find the interview here: http://talkingaboutsex.com/karen-young/ If you missed that, you will find a number of references on my web page here.
2. Wipfler, Patty. Supporting Adolescents. Palo Alto: Hand in Hand, 2006. Print. Page 5 – 6. You can purchase a digital or hard copy version of this booklet here.