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Regarding Children: Growing pains

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Just because children grow longer legs and spout a larger, perhaps increasingly profane, vocabulary doesn’t mean they are more mature. Nor are they tougher, able to take the rough patches in easier stride.

When our young become adolescents, which begins at approximately age 10, they may seem older and even at times wiser. But it can also be a shield to hide fear, intense feelings of vulnerability.

Hard to remember when a family crisis descends. Maybe, for instance, when you answer the phone and the school administrator tells you the principal is on the line.

It takes parental courage to recall in such moments that our children are learning to navigate a complex world outside our door. Sometimes that complexity has to do with the inside, as well. Separation, divorce, and coping with new family dynamics are nearly impossible tasks for the best of us.

We have forgotten that at ages as early as 6 or 7, children once became informal apprentices. In lieu of school, they learned a trade. They were considered ready.

As part of a family it’s a good thing to have a job in the household that one learns to do well. Here, the child develops the capacity to be part of a working whole. Early stages are when kids are both receptive to taking on a task and to feeling important in doing it with care.

One family whose children I have observed over the years, taught their 4- and 6-year-olds to set the children’s table when guests came for dinner. They learned correct placement of utensils as well as what it means to be a good host: take the coats, help guests find the bathroom if that should be necessary. Always be attentive to the needs of the moment.

They were so good at these responsibilities, they decided to host their own birthday parties too: invitations, menu and the party itself plus cleanup. But by the time the 4-year-old was 7, she decided it was “too much work” and just like that, birthdays were celebrated with family, only.

Maturity looks different at every stage. Sometimes, it takes growing out of a privileged job that started out as fun.

At other times, when the legs are suddenly gangly, feet several sizes larger, and the former little one is now ungainly, awkward, it’s a matter of patience.

On account of that underlying support, he knows he can be sure of help when he gets stuck.

It makes a difference, too, if a family has allowed their offspring to grow into ever more fitting tasks in the household, so there’s a sense of belonging at every stage as they master increasingly difficult assignments. Both parents paying attention — together or not — means that the young one doesn’t have to be contrary to be noticed.

When two adolescents I know — ages 11 and 15 — wanted to go to Disneyland one last time, their dad said, “All right. Then you can plan the trip”. Handing a credit card to the 15-year-old whom he knew was proficient with the internet, he added, “you can book it, too.” He then provided the dates he was available.

With fear and trembling, she later reported, his daughter booked the family holiday. In the end, she felt entirely triumphant.

She knows her parents see her because they trust her with increasing accountability. The following summer she decided she wanted to be on the tennis team at her school, so she found her own coach and booked the lessons. She made the team.

That doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing and harmonious every day, of course. Hormones are coursing through these young bodies at a level that Mary Freud once said made it nearly impossible to determine if one in adolescence was “normal” or not.

But the beauty of it is that they are growing into adults we are glad to welcome as part of our circle. That’s what we’re doing at every stage, isn’t it? Growing human beings whose company we enjoy.

Audrey Ward wrote the column “Regarding Children” for six years as the founder and executive director of HomePeace and subsequently, The Children’s Council, in a rural county of Northern California; during this time she was also a United Methodist pastor. She again offers it as a retired mother of two daughters and a son; four granddaughters and two grandsons, all of whom she considers her true educators.

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