In this month’s issue of Psychology Today Matt Huston wrote an interesting piece gathering insights from experts on what maturity means at different life stages. I provided commentary for a ten-year-old explaining, “A mature 10-year-old is aware of who can run the fastest in his or her class, who is the best at math, and other comparison. This helps children differentiate their skills and attributes from an early age. By recognizing where they have strengths, and where they may need to focus more attention, kids can feel a sense of self-efficacy—and finding an area of strength can help develop self-esteem.”

In light of the recent New York Times feature on kids in extreme sports, “Is It Wrong to Let Children Do Extreme Sports?” I paused to consider whether the children who do these activities are more or less mature than their peers. On the whole I suspect they are more mature, both because they have identified an area in which they excel and have applied themselves to success there. Their parents on the other hand are another story…

In Huston’s “The Meaning of Maturity,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne states that “A mature 40-year-old is able to benefit from experience.” So how then can a father like Geoff Eaton allow his teenage son, Jett, continue skateboarding after he has suffered “about 10 concussions and five seizures, has broken six bones and has had his spleen punctured twice?” Well, he likely isn’t mature when it comes to his son.

Of course Geoff Eaton isn’t alone. Jon Lackman, who wrote the article, rightly identifies a central paradox in American childhood today: “Even as childhood in America seems to become more and more circumscribed in the name of safety — as schools limit recess activities and remove threatening playground equipment, as critics inveigh against parents who let their children roam without supervision — kids participate in extreme sports at ever-younger ages.”

But these competing impulses are part of the same underlying trend: seeing all children as distinctive, or needing to be distinctive. When every child needs to excel kids need to be coddled and pushed in a particular area. This is often a classed phenomenon, with upper-middle and middle class families the biggest subscribers to this notion (as I point out in this well-written article by Lee Lawrence in this week’s The Christian Science Monitor). If this seems to push kids toward “emotional maturity” that makes sense as this view of childhood as a training ground for adulthood places emphasis on adult-like qualities.

Of course some kids are innately more competitive than others. Perhaps that may even be an area in which a child knows he or she excels (though being competitive in all aspects of life can certainly have its downfalls). The trick, as Mary Pols finds out in this thoughtful piece on learning how to harness her son’s competitiveness on the field and apply it to classroom performance, is to model what matters most to an individual or family (full disclosure, she also cites me!).

Humans are naturally competitive and being able to accurately evaluate social position and rank helped us survive and specialize and evolve. As society changes—sometimes rapidly—it’s unhealthy (and perhaps even immature) to get fixated on one thing (like motocross or even hockey) because it’s unclear how that may help or hurt long-term.  But introducing competition and helping kids learn to navigate a competitive situation as individuals when the stakes aren’t very high can be useful and is in fact inevitable. It’s up to parents to know how to safely—both physically and psychically—work with their child to identify their standing in the various communities of which they are a part. It won’t happen overnight, but knowing that remains a mark of maturity at any age.

About the Author

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D.

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture, competition, childhood and parenting.

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