From about the time children reach two or three years of age, they are quite good at expressing their independent natures. “I can do it myself!” It’s a common exclamation. Once a child has learned he or she is a unique individual, the natural inclination is to seek autonomy.
This natural inclination sets up an interesting situation for parents. In the picture above, our elder son (now a motorcycle police officer) was permitted to take a short ride around the yard with a friend who’d ridden to our house on his motorcycle. I think the boy may have been three years old at the time.
Before his birth, this child embodied perpetual motion. By the time he was two years old, he was riding a two-wheel bike (sans training wheels). Once, I left the car running (with him buckled into a car seat) and sprinted into the house. When I hurried back to the car, my son was ensconced in the driver’s seat reaching his hand to the steering column gear shift … about to throw it in gear! He’d seen this action often … and knew he could make it happen! “I can do it myself!”
My son was a bit older when another friend stopped by the house but left his children in their van … with the engine running. Our son and his older siblings went out to the van to chat with their friends … and the next thing we noticed, the van was moving slowly in reverse, backing down our driveway with my son in the driver’s seat again! Good thing we had a long driveway!
After those near-misses, we learned to keep the keys well-hidden, but it was clear this child had learned by watching others and was intent on establishing his autonomy and independence to operate almost any motorized vehicle by himself.
But there was a problem with his natural inclination. He was far too small physically to see over the wheel of an ordinary vehicle, and even if he’d been able to manage the physical part of driving, his mental abilities weren’t developed enough to exercise ordinary safety measures. Even though he made demands for autonomy, there were excellent reasons his parents didn’t hand over the keys.
I was thinking about this today as I read more details about the teenage girls (17 and 15 years of age) living in Austria who – if the story is to be believed – ran away in April from their homes in Vienna and traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS. A note left behind for their parents purportedly said: “Don’t look for us. We will serve Allah – and we will die for him.”
As might be expected, the girls are now pleading to return home to Austria. Apparently, their romanticized journey took a detour to Disenchantment. Some reports indicate both girls are now pregnant. A September story claimed one of the girls was dead. I can imagine this has been a nightmare for the parents of these girls … and it doesn’t look to improve. Austrian authorities aren’t enthusiastic about allowing the quick return of two wannabe terrorist women.
There are good reasons not to give a child the car keys. There are good reasons a 15- or 17-year old should remain in the care of parents. In general, they haven’t yet developed the prudence to consistently make good decisions.
Unfortunately, there’s a big push in our culture (and I can only presume it’s the same in Austria) for parents to cede independence to their offspring long before they’re experienced enough to be wisely independent. It seems unnecessary to say it, but teenagers are not adults!
Psychiatrist Carl Jung (the Jung in Jungian psychology) gave us the term individuation. It’s a good concept on its face, the personal process of differentiating one’s self from others. Where it goes bad is when parents fail to understand that just because a child strives for individuation, he or she is still a child, still in need of boundaries and limits, still incapable of making adult decisions.
During the years of my parenting, I acknowledged my inability to redirect my children away from every pitfall and danger zone; what I hoped to do was minimize the possibility of lifelong consequences for bad decision making. Let’s face it, some decisions teenagers make will be permanent. Driving drunk, texting while driving … both are risks teenagers tend to take. Some die as a result. Others pay a lifetime price for their foolishness.
When I think about these two teenagers begging for a do-over, I do hope for an eventual positive outcome in spite of their rash actions. I suspect they’ve learned that actions have consequences and that’s a good marker on the path to maturity. But it’s hardly adequate for what their actions have guaranteed will now be a more complex and perilous path ahead. Whether they live long enough to tell the tale, only time will tell.