America’s new hero is Gabby Douglas. She is only a petite 4’11” but she is composed of pure steel. She helps us see the strength and courage a sixteen year old can demonstrate. She is full of confidence, determination and purpose to a degree that most adults lack but she can remind us that we should never underestimate our teenagers and their capability. The modern world with its incredible freedom and vast choices can often diminish the opportunities for teenagers, our “semi-adults.” Gabby Douglas should help us stay aware that 16 can be powerful and accomplished.
I have worked with teenagers throughout my career as a psychologist and I have enormous respect and sympathy for their struggles. Sociologists are well aware that adolescence as a time between childhood and adulthood is completely a modern invention. Throughout human history, until just the last hundred years or so, sexual maturity at around the age of 13 marked the transition to adult responsibilities. People frequently had their own children in the mid-teens, supported families with full time work and served in the military. I always remember the example of visiting the lovely town of Castine, Maine and learning of the Baron de Castine who was dispatched at the age of 15 to command the town. John Quincy Adams was working in the diplomatic service from the age of 14. In my own family my grandmother, raised in an orphanage was sent in to the world at 13 to make her way and she accomplished this successfully, working as a court stenographer.
Today’s teenagers have the same biological urges-to procreate (or at least be sexually active) and to make their mark in the world as every generation that preceded them. Our advanced, technological society makes that extremely difficult. It takes 17, 21, perhaps even longer to gain the education to function successfully as an independent adult in the United States. In economically disadvantaged countries teenagers are still moving in to adult roles; raising their own families, working agriculturally or going in to battle. Many modern parents experience conflict with teenagers because they, logically, still perceive these youth as “children” because parents remain financially responsible for the welfare of their teenagers. On the other side, the young person is straining to be more in charge of their life, make their own decisions with the financial independence to do so. In many ways our society infantilizes these young people because it is almost impossible to be independent prior to seventeen. Certainly for many high school dropouts, gang members, youthful drug users and dealers, the desire for autonomy fuels decisions which are detrimental over the long term.
So what does Gabby Douglas’ triumph show us? At 14 she had a burning passion and goal sufficiently powerful to cause her to leave her family and pursue a mostly independent course of action. She left what appears to be a close knit family, moving across the country from Virginia Beach to Iowa to train with a coach she chose. This was HER decision, one that her mother opposed at first. She left an ethnically mixed community to live in an environment with few African Americans, leaving behind much that was familiar. To watch her achievements of super-human strength at the Olympics, to witness her poise, focus and determination is awe inspiring to most of us. There is no doubt that this is an exceptionally gifted athlete with world class skills that few of us possess but underneath it all is a 16 year old girl. A girl! An African-American girl! This is not who we expect to perceive as heroic but her incredible heroism is indisputable.
So, I urge modern parents to never lose sight of the strength struggling to emerge in your young people. They are not all going to be Gabby Douglas but many are capable of far more than we expect. We may resent their dependence but so do they and we are all confined by external conditions we can do little to modify. Let teenagers make their choices, let them make their mistakes. Help them follow their dreams and achieve their goals. Remembering the accomplishment of which they are capable can guide us in supporting them to be as powerful and accomplished as they can possibly be. They are children in name but not in spirit or body and finding the best way to maneuver through this strange transition is a challenge for them as well as us. They need our love and understanding and the difficult task of stepping back to allow them to find their own path in life.