(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Tween

Burdening Kids With the Weight of the World

Joey Goodall / 1.23.23

We know how much pressure we face as adults, how expectations come at us from all angles, threatening to crush us like we’re stuck in the Death Star’s trash compactor. If pushed, we might admit that teens deal with some of this, mostly because we know that adulthood is slowly encroaching on them too. But the fact that the tween and under set also often find themselves bogged down by expectations is something we tend to forget.

A scene in the final episode of the new FX/Hulu adaptation of Fleishman is in Trouble (intentionally or not) shows just how easily adults miss the unique ways pressure shows up in the lives of children. Unfortunately, we tend to either idealize children, and therefore expect their supposedly inherent perfection to cure the ills of the world, or, we project our own guilt upon them, hoping they can become what we couldn’t. Either way, it’s a heaping pile of expectation that no one can live up to.

In the scene, eleven-year-old Hannah, (along with her father Toby, and her younger brother, Solly), meets with a rabbi to plan her bat mitzvah for the fall. Hannah has been studying her haftarah all summer, and goes into the meeting smiling and proud. After the rabbi praises her for her diligent study, he lays the following on her:

Hannah, do you understand that you are engaging in a tradition that goes back thousands of years? You are accepting the yoke of responsibility for your family and your community, and all the commandments of the Torah, and you’re taking it upon yourself that it is your turn to try and fix this world. The world is upside down right now, and we need all the smart, thinking girls to help fix it.

Hannah understandably balks, decides she doesn’t want to go through with her bat mitzvah after all, and runs out of the rabbi’s office into the sanctuary of the synagogue. Toby finds her standing behind the altar, and tries to convince her to go through with it, appealing to tradition and community. Hannah isn’t swayed. She says: “You always tell me to think for myself and not to be corrupted by other people around me, but I want my own traditions. I want my own life, and I want to make my own decisions. I don’t want to have to fix anything; I haven’t even broken anything. I’m only eleven.” The first part of that sounds like the usual appeal to personal autonomy you hear from tweens and teens because of where they are developmentally, but the heart of what she’s saying is in the last part, “I don’t want to fix anything; I haven’t even broken anything.” Unfortunately, her father only hears and responds to the first part, leaving the core untouched.

It makes sense for Hannah to want to skip the ceremony, but not for the reasons her father thinks. The bat mitzvah isn’t actually the problem, neither is tradition or religion. It has nothing to do with differentiation from her parents or a burgeoning sense of autonomy. Hannah is already dealing with all the normal stressors of childhood, as well as the aftermath of her parents’ divorce and the fallout of a mistake she made at summer camp. To then show up for something she’s worked hard at, only to be told that she now has to do more — it’s too much. 

We forget how difficult it is to be a kid. We just remember that we didn’t have work deadlines or performance reviews, we didn’t have to worry about rent or mortgage payments, and we bounced back from injury or illness in what seemed like half the time. But that view of childhood is far from comprehensive. One of the most perceptive quotes on childhood I’ve come across is from famed children’s book editor Jean Karl, who wrote:

Childhood is not a time of innocence, it is not a time of unmitigated pleasure, it is not a time of easy joys and carefree days. It is only so in the nostalgia of adults. Childhood is a time of difficult inquiry, of trying discovery, of hard quests and unfulfilled desires. It is a time of bumping into limits that seem to have no reason, of enduring meaningless ceremonies, and also of striking out into exciting visions. It is a time of pain and yet a time of ecstasy, because so much is new and discovery of the new is always filled with both a wonder and a hurt.

Because we forget these truths, blinded by nostalgia as we are, we don’t think of our heaping impossible expectations upon children as that big of a deal. We don’t mean to do this. We often have the best of intentions. We want our children to feel they have agency and ability. But what we’re doing is asking them to start figuring out a way to change the world, and find out who they are on their own, all while they’re barely keeping up with long division. 

We can hope that our children will be better than us, that they’ll fix some of the problems that we’ve created, and become what we couldn’t. It could happen. But what’s more likely is that they’ll be better in a few ways, exactly the same in some, and potentially worse in others. They might fix some existing problems, but they’ll create problems of their own, too.

The narrator in Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead writes that he hopes his son will grow up to be an “excellent man,” but will love him absolutely even if he is not. This comes after writing about the “disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving.” This is the kind of thing we could say that might actually lessen the weight of expectation on our kids rather than add to it. It’s the kind of thing we all still want to hear as adults. Children aren’t just small adults, but some of their needs are the same. To best serve our children, we need to leave room for failure — just as God leaves room for our failure — and let them know that we (and God) love them beyond the bounds of expectation. That God’s grace is as much for them as it is for us. Because no matter what they do or who they’ll be, they are loved just as they are. 

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