Monday, January 30, 2012

- Bad Extrapolation

I have another somewhat more internal musing to offer while my second simulation of the day runs.

As I have mentioned numerous times, my only child is a daughter. But my friend has a son. I’ve had some experience with the boy, and he seems a bright and decent kid to me. Maybe while he’s at home he’s a villain, but I’ve never seen it. All in, I’d say he’s no more ill mannered or surly than any other teenager I’ve ever met. In my view he’s quite literally a normal, slightly quirky kid, who is by no means a horror to be around. And yet, my friend is very concerned about his son’s future.

I don’t mean to butt into my friend’s relationships with their kids, and knowing as little about good parenting as I do, I’m loath to give advice. But I do like to offer what help and entertainment I can. That’s what friends do right? I have access to Wall Street internships for college aged kids (which can be a real career advantage), and access to firearms and a firing range for kids of all ages. Many of my friends have taken up the latter, and a few now have gone for the former. And it’s made their kids a ‘sometimes’ topic of conversation.

So in talking to my friend about his son and some shooting and hunting related activity we’re planning, he expressed to me a worry that his son has a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. He doesn’t think he needs treatment to function (or if he does, he didn’t say so to me). He just thinks the kid has a sort of emotional disconnection from world and that it speaks of some other broader problems. Personally I’m dubious.

I feel like I’m probably getting out of my area just a little here having never raised a boy. But he is not the only friend I have who has voiced a concern like that to me about their own son. And I wonder if that doesn’t speak to some trend in parenting rather than a trend in the kids. In my experience, teenage boys come in two flavors - those with highly developed social skills (heretofore called ‘charming’) and those without. My nephew is an example of a charming kid as was his father, my younger brother.

And on the opposing side, I myself was an example of a teenager who was utterly lacking in anything called charm. By the time I’d reached the age of my friend’s son I was deeply introverted, loaded down with severe self hatred, and unspeakably, impossibly shy. To anyone who paid attention I looked like a kid who was bright but ‘deeply troubled’, which in fact I probably was. That phrase found its way into a number of school related reports with my name at the top and if anything, I’m probably understating the impact it had on my teenage years. But eventually I grew up. And just as my brother’s copious charm hasn’t solved all the world’s problems for him, my complete lack of it turned out to be less debilitating than it seemed it would for me.

As I got out into the world and came to better understand my place in it, I got over my shyness, became more open with people, and learned that I wasn’t actually the worst human being ever born. I’m not saying it was easy for me, or that to be perfectly frank, it’s easy now. But no one meeting me today would ever recognize the teenager I was. I am, for all intents and purposes, fully recovered from my teenage angst. And it’s my expectation that however Asperger like my friend’s sons may be, I think they’ll probably get over theirs too.

My point is, I think we may be expecting too much from our teenage boys. Maybe it’s harder now with so many of society taboo’s burned in the hippie bonfires of the 60’s and abandoned to the ash heap of history. Most of those taboo's were designed to keep teenage boys in line, so maybe the world looks scarier to parents now that they're gone. But these kids look pretty normal to me even if their parents still have concerns. I just don’t think you can accurately extrapolate a period of life that’s difficult for everyone, and imagine that it will lead to a life of general decline.

Neither of the boys I’m talking about seem to me to be particularly cruel, or nasty. Neither has had much of a problem with peer group violence. They’re reasonably good students. Neither seems likely to join a gang, the Klan, Al-Qaeda, or to take up the crack pipe. They don't even seem like they'll vote Democrat. Maybe it’s easier for me since I don’t have such lofty hopes for them, but when I look at these kids I just don’t see a problem. Especially in the light of having recovered from my own much more serious social issues.

I get that a father wants his son to be more than him. I get that it’s a very difficult thing to look at your child and remember that they are not clay for you to mold. I know it’s tough to avoid disappointment at the idea that they are following a path that will lead them to be something other than what you would like them to be or that doesn't seem to lead to them fulfilling their potential. But speaking directly to my friends who have voiced a concern like this one, I’d like to point something out.

I may not be a billionaire, but I don’t think there is anyone out there who would call me a failure. I make a nice living in an interesting job with fantastic forward prospects; I have a happy wife, a happy child, and a number of intelligent, charming, and interesting friends. I’m a perfectly normal man who is doing pretty well all in, and I'm very happy with my place in the world.

But it is none the less true that my father badly wanted me to turn out differently than I have. And to this day he’s not only deeply disappointed in me, but at some levels he's thoroughly ashamed of how I turned out. While that doesn’t thrill me, I have made my peace with it. And the reason I was able to was that while I may not be many of the things that he hoped I'd be, I am many of the things that I hoped I’d be. And in the end we all find our own place.

Your boys seem fine to me - really much better than that. I can see nothing wrong with them that a few years and some experience finding their place in the world won’t fix. And I’m a living example that kids can climb back from much much worse.

So don’t panic.


I guess the New York Times editors read my stuff too. If so, I should really speak to them about their economic view.

1 comment:

frithguild said...

I had dinner with my daughter's Pediatrician, and he asked me whether I though she had some mild form of Asbergers. I stayed calm, but immagine my mind's panic button that I was banging over and over and the blasting defcon 5 sirens!

I watched According to Greta last night, because it was set in Ocean Grove - people go there to heal. It drew an interesting contrast between the Greatest Generation and teenagers. I think the difference more profound than than the screenwriter appreciated. I wish transformation was that easy.

Mine, I call it the Blank Ggeneration - between the baby boomers and the Gen X's, grew up with mass media as a constant influence. But then, the choices were few, so we all were sort of "in tune." So I think I kind of see how being steeping in media effects you. I find that when I want to illustrate a point, I tend to refer to a movie or some such thing. Then they understand!

Now, media choices are basically infinite, with each choice having a differing stimulus and consequence. As a parent, my experience is that media access for teenagers is impossible to structure. The times I have tried to do it, I felt I was being like my father, who made me be the only kid in 5th grade with a hair cut where you could see his whole ear.

So your teens are running their own program. They can access all manner of extraordinaily bizzare creepy things. Choosing is a great, non-private responsibility that can be a little terrifying and erosive to self confidence. But at the same time, it provides a reward much like a Skinner Box. Neurochemically, I think, it shapes the behavior that becomes ordinary for teens.

So as a teenager, you might become very immersed in a few narrow things that make you comfortable, where you get good enough at them to be "followed," while blocking out all manner of other things. At least this seems to be how it is, when I check the browsing history in the firewall.

So how infinite interactive media has shaped my daughter'sd generation sure might seem like Asbergers to those in the Greatest Generation or older Boomers. Like my daughters pediatrician. I hope.