Tuesday, July 17, 2012
I recently read some letters written by adults to their young selves. The first thing that struck me about the exercise (which I toyed with a while; might publish it, might not) is how difficult it is, assuming you don't let yourself give spoilers and you consider carefully how your 12-year-old self might have interpreted what you say. A 12-year-old is already well into a period of drastic, rapid change in life, with little or no experience. Nothing I could tell my 12-year-old self that he could have understood or known how to apply would have been anywhere near adequate preparation for what he would be going through. Just gotta live through it, kiddo, stormy as it often is, but while I'm here I can tell you some general things that might comfort and encourage you while you do.
And if we can't even do that very well for ourselves in hindsight...theoretically, we ought to be the ideal parents for our past selves. You know your 12-year-old self hundreds of times better than your parents ever could, and even the parents who are best at communicating with their kids still have to deal with having busy lives of their own. And I doubt any parent and child can ever really see the other outside of their roles. Parents love, manage and protect their children, but it doesn't follow from this that they know their children all that well, especially by the time the child gets to middle school. But in this hypothetical exercise, we have none of those barriers. It's not absolutely transparent, since our memories are distorted in various ways, but no parent or friend or spouse can ever know you anything remotely like you yourself do.
So we ought to pay attention to what grownups would tell their tweenage selves, because they above all would know. What do they tend to say? Most of the essays I read included one particular theme: you're a good kid, believe in yourself, don't let the nastiness of the world you're becoming aware of beat you down, hang in there, it's going to get better. No surprise there. I wrote those things when I tried the exercise, too. Being twelve is just hard.
I do think that our society gets so focused on preparing kids for the prosaic real world we know that we fail to prepare them to be happy or fulfilled. We prepare them to compete by teaching them to judge their worth wholly by comparison with others, to never give themselves credit merely for trying their best or being a good person. Because we have to have STANDARDS, you know. You can't just be happy, peaceful, content. You have to aspire to be someone richer, smarter, prettier, more athletic, more virtuous (by someone else's definition, invariably), more lovable. It's all a game that you either win or lose. You know who thinks that way? 12-year-olds. There's no age at which people are more jealous or insecure or competitive or desperate to be seen well than middle school. Those kids are learning the lessons of the society we brought them into, all right - in fact, they're learning them too well.