Mal Fletcher
From Zero to Hero: Young People Appreciate Their Parents at 22

A British poll published recently suggests that young people only really begin to appreciate their parents when they reach the ripe old age of 22.

Some parents of teenagers will find this disheartening, to say the least. I can almost hear mums and dads across the land screaming, ‘Surely we can expect some respect before then?!’

I was invited to address this issue on the BBC TV’s Breakfast programme and I discovered that many people were surprised by the study’s findings. As the father of three young adult children, aged between 19 and 24, I think I might know what this poll is actually suggesting. It’s not necessarily saying that teenagers don’t appreciate their parents. It is reflecting a fairly normal change that occurs in all of us somewhere between the end of the teen years and the beginning of adulthood. For most of one’s teenage life, the focus of the mind is firmly on oneself. A certain degree of self-centredness is a default factory-setting in teenagers. Besides, only an adult can begin to understand the real pressures and restrictions of adult life.

If you’re a stressed-out parent and you think I’m going a little easy on teenagers, try to remember for a moment what it was like when you were their age. As a teenager, you probably didn’t set out to be self-obsessed. Indeed, seeing this in yourself probably left you feeling very uncomfortable at times. Yet the ongoing struggle to discover and assert your own identity, combined with the background pressures of peer expectation and uncertainty about the future, might often have focused your mind in an inward direction.

In your middle teenage years, when the ravages of hormonal change and rapid physical growth were taking their toll, you probably didn’t spare too many thoughts for your parents’ aspirations or feelings. You almost certainly didn’t think about them as often as they thought about you.

What this study reveals ought to be common sense – as is the case with many published studies these days. As young people approach the end of their teenage years, most can’t wait to move out from under the dark, forbidding shadow of their parents and to make their own way in the world. (Of course, in recessionary times such as these, financial pressures can conspire to keep them around a little while longer.) Once they achieve this magical goal, there’s usually a fantastic sense of relief and sometimes even elation, at least at first.

But the high doesn’t last. After perhaps two or three years of this newly found liberation, young adults begin to realise that freedom doesn’t come cheap. There’s a price tag attached to independence. A plethora of new decisions demands to be addressed; not once, but often many times a month. There are choices about budgeting, banking, food, transportation, insurance, health issues and much, much more.

After a while, it may also become clear that their peers, friends and colleagues expect more from them than their families do. When you’re living in shared accommodation, as many young adults are, the house rules may not be the same as those under the family roof, but there’s also less grace for people who fail to keep them. (Have you ever witnessed an argument between two young housemates over who should’ve put the garbage out? Not pretty.) So, after a couple of years away from home, many young adults begin to look at their parents differently, because they’re now confronting the business end of life for themselves. They may feel a certain grudging respect and even admiration for those who’ve successfully trod the path before, including their parents.

There is respect not only for parents’ longevity in the game, but for the depth of their know-how. Facing major life choices, young people suddenly see their parents as a data-mine, a rich source of useful information. The study mentioned above found that by the mid-20s, young adults start plying their parents with questions about raising children, buying a house and so on. That’s hardly surprising. Teens living at home can hardly be expected to understand the pressures of paying the rent, meeting mortgage commitments or holding down a job in a competitive marketplace. Intuitively, teens know this. Yet the drive for independence and self-reliance often discourages any open display of appreciation for those who face these pressures on their behalf. Young adults living away from home, however, are forced to negotiate the business end of life. They can better appreciate life’s practical and existential challenges and the people who’ve had experience with them.

Are there any words of encouragement in all this for parents who, while they hope their teenagers will be respectful at the ripe old age of 22, don't know if they can hold out that long? If you’re a parent, the most important thing to remember is that your kids won’t be around the house forever. It’s worth trying to discover as much good as you can in your kids, in the relatively short time that you’ll have with them. Your children have many needs that only you can meet; but the reverse is also true.

I remember when my son was very young, just starting school, he told me about a school project that involved studying heroes. He was fascinated by the whole idea of someone being a hero. As I said tucked him into bed one evening, he looked up at me and said, quite simply and honestly, ‘Dad, you're my hero.’ I was walking on a cloud for days after that. (Okay, I confess – it was weeks. And there are still moments when I feel lifted by that simple, heartfelt statement.)

Moments like that are pure gold for a parent, because the number one default emotion for parents very often is guilt (closely followed by fear). No matter how well prepared we try to be for the parenting role, most of us constantly wonder whether we’re doing it right. Is our discipline too tough or is it too light? Are we generous enough, or too indulgent? Are we making enough money to give our children a solid future? The list of questions goes on and on.

There are nights when we’ll toss about in bed, wondering if we were right to get upset about something they did or didn’t do. There may be days spent on business trips and the like, when the sound of a young voice on the phone makes us wish with all our hearts that we were at home. (Of course, there are other times when a business trip can’t come soon enough!)

We spend years giving love, discipline, values and time to our kids. Then, perhaps sooner than we had dreamt, they’re gone. The house is suddenly quieter and life may seem more relaxed; yet we can't shake the feeling that a major chapter in our lives has closed.

If you’re parenting a teenager, it helps to try to take the long-view. One day, with good fortune and some help from friends, you’ll probably experience the unique pleasure of seeing your adult children make good with the start you’ve given them. And, if this new study is anything to go by, you’ll soon have the added bonus of playing the expert to their many questions about life’s practicalities. It's called going from zero to hero.

Copright Mal Fletcher 2009

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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