I have an eight-month-old baby right now, and she is very charming. I am fully aware of this, and I am appreciating and enjoying it. But when I go places with her, people tell me, “You need to enjoy this time with your baby. They grow up so fast!” I feel tempted to retort something like, “I hope to enjoy that too!” Or, “What, are you expecting me to raise a monster?”
Now I get it, babies are charming, and innocent, and sweet, and helpless, and it is a lovely phase… But it is only a phase, and if it lasted more than a year, there would be a serious developmental problem.
Appreciate What We Have
I agree that we should appreciate the different stages in our lives. Each phase happens only once, and has unique features that set it apart from other stages of life. And taking baby pictures and making baby journals can be happy and useful activities. (If nothing else, 20 or 30 years later, when your kids ask you how to deal with babies, you’ll have something to tell them because you will be able to refresh your memory with the journal and the photos.)
But “enjoying” your baby can become an obsession, too. In fact, some people are so overwhelmed by being told to enjoy their babies, that it comes as a relief when people tell them that it’s okay that you aren’t necessarily enjoying your sleepless nights, and being bitten by your teething baby. Some mothers end up with unnecessary feelings of guilt because they are not taking enough baby pictures, or not getting professional pictures taken.
In a few years, people will probably start telling my child that she should enjoy this time when she has no responsibilities, because “Life will never be so carefree again.” Then in highschool, she will be told by well-intentioned adults that, “These are the best years of your life, you need to enjoy this time, because once you’re an adult all the fun is over.” And then she will graduate, and if she starts thinking about getting married, the message that will face her everywhere is that the wedding is great, not the marriage, and it all goes downhill from there.
Now, once again, I do think that children should enjoy their childhoods and that teenagers should have some fun in highschool. And it is true that adults have more responsibilities than children, and that responsibilities can be hard. (See my article about why responsibility is actually amazing) But there is no reason why the rest of their lives must be pointless drudgery.
Babies are supposed to grow up; that’s what babies are for. Children are supposed to become adolescents and adolescents are supposed to become adults. And the more you grow as a person, the better your life should be. Your experiences are there to make you grow. And the goal of growth is maturity.
Experiences Are for Growth
Each stage of life comes with experiences that are unique to it. And the purpose of these experiences is to allow us to grow into better, more mature people—to develop virtue, as philosophers would have once said. A baby is working on developing physical virtues when she sticks her toes in her mouth, or crawls, or takes her first step. This is why these events should be celebrated, not because they are “memories” that you will be able to savor in your later life.
Your baby grows into a child. Soon your child can not only walk, but run, talk, and read books. Each of these events should be celebrated, because each of them marks a stage of development toward the virtuous adult that your child is meant to become.
And then your child becomes a teenager. Teenagers have an instinctive desire to grow up. They want to take responsibility for their lives, but they aren’t very good at knowing what good decisions are. Their behavior is often looked upon as rebelliousness by their parents, and in a way it is. It is the adult attempting to put away the things of the child. But teenagers lack the control that an adult needs to handle adult responsibilities alone. He or she should be helped to reach that goal. But if the teenager is told that teenage years are basically just an extension of childhood, and that he will have no new responsibilities, but continue to be treated as a child, he is bound to be frustrated. Or if he is told that being a teenager is the best time of his life, he is unlikely to take the effort to learn the self-control needed to become a responsible adult.
The teenager’s attempts to gain independence should be celebrated too, even as they are disciplined and directed, because they are an attempt to develop the virtues of the adult. It is also important to make the teenager realize that responsible adulthood is the goal to which he should be striving, and not “having fun” or “making memories.”
It is strange to me that people still tell teenagers that highschool is the best years of their lives despite the prevalence of teenage depression and even suicide. I wonder how many of them are depressed because they have been told that life goes downhill from there, and they find that life is already unbearably bad.
A more useful tactic would be to give them a mission to accomplish, something to take their minds off the feeling of pointlessness they so often have. What we should tell them is something more like what Jordan Peterson says in 12 Rules for Life: “We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for our individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”
Now of course no teenager can do this alone, or without direction. They will need guidance to find their own way to make the world better. And if they do this, and only if they do this, their own lives will become better, as they themselves grow and develop.
Let’s Empower Ourselves
A mature adult is one who has accepted responsibility for is or her own life. The mature woman has recognized that she can make a difference in her world, and that she has the duty to do so. She cannot blame someone else for all her problems, which might seem hard at first. If you can blame someone else for your problems, then you can momentarily feel good, “It’s not my fault.”
But the victim mentality is the most dis-empowering mentality in the world. If nothing is your own fault, then you can’t fix anything. If you can’t fix anything, then life is hopeless, and you might as well give up now. And I think it is closely tied up with the “making memories” mentality: the idea that you must try to get the most possible pleasure out of life, right now, rather than doing something that is meaningful and good, just because it is meaningful and good.
“Just enjoy them while they’re young. Soon they will be teenagers.” Implied in this seemingly innocent comment is the idea that your children will be awful when they are older, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When people tell children or teenager that they need to enjoy their lives now because being an adult is harder, what they are really telling them is that they will have no power to make their lives better. In fact, they are telling them that the more power over their lives they have, the worse it will get.
Let’s stop trying to “make memories,” and start trying to learn and grow. And if making baby albums helps us and our children learn and grow, then let’s make baby albums. Let’s stop telling our kids that their lives are better now than they ever will be again, and start helping them develop the skills and virtues they will need to make their adult lives more satisfying and fulfilling every day.
And finally let’s do good things just because they are good, and fun things just because they are fun, and not because some future version of ourselves will be able to sit in a rocking chair and say, “Remember when…”