Is 25 the New 18? Slow Down and Find the Answer in "Vienna"
Tips for parenting today's adolescents.
Posted July 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- The message in Billy Joel’s “Vienna” is the perfect tonic for today’s adolescents: don’t be in a rush to grow up.
- Today’s youth are often pushed to grow up too quickly, sacrificing much-needed refinement and development in the process.
- To help slow things down, adjust your priorities and allow your kids to fail and learn from their mistakes.
Billy Joel's song Vienna, originally an afterthought when it was released in 1975 (it was a B-side single), has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and is, at the time of this writing, his fourth most played song on Spotify. Though the reason for the song's newfound popularity is unclear, I suspect it may be because the song's main message—don't be in a rush to grow up—is the perfect tonic for today's adolescents, in a world pushing them to mature faster and faster. The song's opening line sets the theme: "Slow down you crazy child, you're so ambitious for a juvenile, but then if you're so smart tell me why are you still so afraid."
As a psychologist who was trained in a university counseling center and works primarily with young adults—undergraduate and graduate students in their teens and 20s—as well as a parent of an adolescent son and daughter, the song Vienna hits home. I'm a witness to the many ways our children are pushed to grow up too quickly, sacrificing much-needed refinement and development in the process. Kids—even as young as 5 or 6—are no longer permitted to dilly dally in activities just for the sake of having fun: every activity must be in the service of teaching a lesson or improving the chances of getting a college scholarship.
Excessive social media use among parents (let alone kids themselves) seem to feed a mentality that our kids always need to be doing something productive and awe-inspiring, lest we miss out on an opportunity to prove to our friends what great parents we are. On the flip side, many of us parents have been conditioned to worry so much about our kids having a failure to launch that the moment we see them slow down (even during COVID) or take one step back in an effort to leap two steps forward, we panic and push them harder.
In my experience, the cumulative effects of these parental anxieties have led to us putting our kids on a treadmill of achievement the moment they come out of the womb. When I speak with my young adult patients, they often tell me that growing up, their parents seemed primarily concerned with making sure they got accepted to a good college, rather than helping them to become successful, balanced, happy adults. They often come to me with a cocktail of anxieties, eating disorders, or sometimes an inability to determine for themselves what they really want to do in life because most of their major decisions were made for them by their parents.
A Brave New World
Growing up at any point in history has had its own unique challenges, but for a number of reasons I believe that today's world requires much more time—to experiment with new things and to make inconsequential mistakes—to ensure healthy development into adulthood. I believe that the world places many more expectations on kids today than ever before, and so much more of their lives is lived under a microscope, viewed by parents and peers alike. To illustrate this, think back to when you were in school and got a bad grade on a test. Did you have the option, if you wanted, to hide that bad grade until report cards were mailed out at the end of the marking period? Today, parents know, often within minutes of the end of the test (and usually before the kids themselves know) what grade their child received, leaving them no place to hide and having to face a legion of tough questions as soon as they walk through the door, like a professional athlete at a press conference after a tough loss.
Here are some other examples of stresses that today's adolescents face that previous generations didn't have to deal with:
- More than ever before, children are growing up in single-parent households (Pew Research Center, 2018) or households where both parents work, where they are often left without parental guidance during episodes of intense emotional distress. In my experience, this makes many adolescents prone to overusing unhealthy coping mechanisms (e.g., finding comfort in food, self-medicating with substances, and spending an abundance of time on their screens) and then needing to learn healthier ways of coping with emotional distress later in life.
- In contrast to previous generations, where a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle could be had with only a high school degree (as most careers involved basic physical labor), today, such a lifestyle is becoming increasingly difficult without advanced education and training, usually to one's the mid-20s. Competition for these jobs will only increase moving forward, making graduate school or advanced technical training increasingly necessary in the future.
- The evolution of gender norms toward a universal set of norms—encompassing a mixture of traditionally masculine and feminine traits—means that today's kids have twice as much to learn to become adequately socialized for tomorrow's world. In the world our children inherited, it is now expected that young men have emotional sensitivity and communication skills that far exceed those of the men of any previous generation. And for girls, it is now expected that they develop levels of athleticism, physical toughness, and assertiveness that far exceed the expectations of women in any previous generation. This means that our kids will require more time to learn, practice, and experiment with a much wider range of adult human traits than ever before in order to become successful, healthy adults in the world to come.
- The double-edged sword of social media poses risks on both sides. On the one hand, exposure to social media inundates them with a sea of distortions about the world at large, and the small world of their social circles. They are often pressured to take strong (and sometimes controversial) positions on issues they may know little about, setting them up for a level of scrutiny and conflict that would be hard for most adults to handle. Plus, the anonymity of the internet increases their likelihood of being verbally attacked in ways they might not be ready to handle. It is also notable that social media ensures that every one of their adolescent mistakes (and awkward pictures) will live on the internet eternally, with the prospect of rivals, frienemies, and exes tapping them with malicious intent at any point in the future. On the other hand, avoidance of social media can often mean the loss of important opportunities to build a healthy social network for tomorrow's world.
In light of the brave new world that Gen Z kids and those that follow will encounter, I believe we need to change our conception of adolescence, extending it to the mid-20s. This does not mean that we need to push back the age to vote, work, drive or serve in the military to 25, but rather we should change our cultural expectations for teens and young adults and parent our children differently. Below are a few recommendations based on my clinical work with young adults as well as my experiences as a parent.
1. Adjust Your Timeline and Your Priorities.
Make raising a balanced, healthy adult your top priority instead of getting your teenager into an Ivy League university out of high school. Take the advice of renowned college admissions expert, Lynn O'Shaughnessy, and avoid falling victim to the Ivy League myth with the understanding that your child will fare better, in the long run, getting into the right college, at the right time, rather than being pushed pedal-to-metal to get into Harvard out of high school. In middle school and high school, encourage your kids to play sports and learn an instrument just for fun, not for a scholarship, and try to avoid making schedules so crammed that kids don't have time to daydream.
On a related note, I often recommend that kids take at least one gap year in college and avoid taking more than 15 credits in a semester. Though this may extend their undergraduate tenure by a year or two, the opportunities available during college—to try new things (e.g., study abroad programs, internships, clubs, etc.) and meet new people—are rarely available later in life.
2. Let Your Kids Fail... and Learn From Their Mistakes.
The problem with helicopter and snowplow parenting is that when we prevent kids from failing, they never learn how to use the trial and error process (which involves mostly error) to develop their own problem-solving skills and grow from their mistakes. Many of my patients are the struggling children of helicopter parents, and they often tell me that they have difficulty making decisions for themselves and even determining what they like because most of their important decisions were made for them by their parents their entire lives.
In closing, I believe that by heeding these recommendations you will be well-positioned to raise a child that grows into a healthy adult, who is balanced and ready to become whatever the universe meant for her to be. But if ever you falter and need a reminder, just "slow down" and listen to Billy Joel's Vienna: the adults you raise will be the better for it.