Kids In The Belfrey

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

Not too long ago, I ran into a fellow who made it ashore in Normandy on D-Day. This was no mean feat as people were trying to kill him all the way. It was back in June of 1944, and at that time he was convinced that he was fighting to save the free world. He still believes that. In point of fact, when you compare him to others who went ashore that day, he came out of it pretty clean, with all his limbs intact and his heart beating right up into the 21st Century. He then came home to a government that provided a college education, and housing developers who made a two bath, three bedroom home an affordable reality. It was the good life. So now he has only one question: Why is it that his son (who's way into his thirties) is still living at home? Whatever happened to striking out on your own, starting a family and maybe even marching off to once again beat back the forces of evil?

What's the matter with kids today? Then again, ask yourself this: Does the past generation ever think of the present generation as worthy? I recall a short lament, supposedly written over 2000 years ago in ancient Greece, which asks the same question. Younger people, it says, don't respect their elders, they don't work as hard to succeed, and they certainly aren't as willing to make the same sacrifices that their progenitors made.

But, then again, were the old days really all that hot? There's evidence to suggest that humans tend to remember positive things and to forget negative things. This may explain why those who lived through the Depression recall the orange they got every Christmas morning, while completely forgetting about Prohibition, and remaining oblivious to its relation to the War on Drugs. Those who don't study history are indeed doomed to repeat it. And yet - and yet - there does seem to be something not quite right about adults who eschew adulthood.

So what's up with this stay-at-home cretin living in the attic? It may well be that the drive to leave the nest, which was always so much a part of growing up, is now being thwarted by modern methods of bringing up baby.

For a very long time, scientists thought that the brain developed in a straight-line fashion. It got bigger and better as we grew older and made our way toward maturity. However, this is no longer the prevailing view. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has progressed to Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and, incredible as it would have seemed just a few decades ago, this allows researchers to examine not only the human brain, but the human brain in action! Think what this means. As a university professor not all that long ago, I taught students how to insert electrodes and fine tubes into patient's heads so that jolts of electricity and minute quantities of chemicals could be administered to specific regions of the brain for research purposes. By today's standards, those techniques are akin to sticking a shovel into a wristwatch.

The amazing insights that FMRI can provide are just that - amazing. What has now been learned is that the brain goes through a series of expansions and contractions; growing and shrinking. Gray matter, which allows for many speedy responses to stimuli, is gradually replaced by white matter, which allows for slower and fewer (but more focused) reactions that have been learned by exposure to the environment over time. In short, youngsters are continuously learning how to behave not only until puberty, but all the way into their late teens and early twenties. Reviewing moving pictures of the thinking brain in action, taken at intervals over a period of years, makes it clear that tendencies stamped out during adolescence may well be lost to the adult.

What does this mean? It means that the tide of hormones that hits pubescent kids, the tide that causes them to want to fly from the nest provided by their parents, has been greatly attenuated by the economics of America in the 21st Century. The rites of passage and the periods of apprenticeship that have always been a part of the teen years and of growing up, have been largely replaced by an additional decade of utter dependence. The 14-year-old who longs for independence, and who would (in earlier times) have been granted the same, is now forced to languish in the nest until 24 and the final year of college. And all during this time, gray matter is being replaced by white matter. The brain is going from an organ looking for challenge to one that's set in its ways.

When I was growing up, the experts of the day pontificated that children should not be allowed (much less encouraged) to read until they were six or seven. Today we know this is nonsense and that children should be learning to read as they are learning to speak. Indeed, waiting until they're six or seven turns out to be counterproductive! In much the same way, forcing young people to wait until their twenties before striking out on their own is not so much a means of providing for a good foundation as it is a means of inhibiting the normal process of maturation.

Please understand that I'm neither trying to diminish the sacrifice parents make when they shell out upwards of $100,000 for yet another four years of schooling, nor am I unaware of the dearth of opportunities available to kids without that mostly meaningless yet essential sheepskin union card. I'm simply trying to answer that WW II veteran's question by explaining that ever increasing numbers of young adults (such as his grandson) are content to remain dependent and living at home because that was the lesson taught and the lesson learned during their formative years.

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