I saw an interesting exchange between a father and son on the street recently. A gaggle of girls in their late teens or early twenties, who were walking ahead of the boy and his dad, crossed against the light.
The boy, who appeared to be about six or seven, old enough to know about looking both ways, started after them. His dad grabbed his shoulder and guided him gently back to the curb.
“We gotta wait for the walk sign, buddy. Remember what I told you about watching the sign to know when it’s time to cross.” He pointed up, where the red hand still blinked.
“But Dad, they went across!” the boy protested.
“Just because they crossed doesn’t mean you should.”
“But Da-a-ad, they’re grownups!”
Without missing a beat, his father replied, “Well, grownups make mistakes all the time.”
If only more parents were brave enough to embrace this idea and to spread it. That is, idea that there is no such thing as an infallible person with infallible wisdom, no matter how they look or how confident they look while doing it. Therefore, we must always be responsible for paying attention, doing our own thinking and coming to our own conclusions.
As the child of divorced parents, I’ve long been aware that some grownups make mistakes. But as a child, I assumed that outside the sphere of my flawed, human home, other adults were keeping a stiff upper lip, doing what needed to be done, keeping the lights on.
Now, thanks to the recession, and more recently, the government shutdown, yet another generation has lost the belief that the grownups will keep the lights on for us. Grownups, as it turns out, do make mistakes all the time. Might as well get used to it, kids.
Of course, it’s one thing to point fingers at the other guy; it’s quite another to admit your own flaws. After all, when you tell a child (or friend, or partner, or employee) that you’re not as omniscient as you seem, they might begin to ask questions you can’t answer, or make decisions that don’t square up with yours. That can be scary.
It can also be scary to be stripped of the ability to blame the “grownups” (or friends, or partners, or bosses) when you find yourself in a bind. After all, if you can’t claim innocence, you’re liable to be found equally guilty.
But the truth is that ceding your decision-making power to another “grownup” is still making a decision. And if you choose to trail behind instead of looking ahead for yourself, you’re still going to get hit if you choose the wrong people to follow.
Conversely, if you choose to look out for yourself, you’ll often find that the information you need is available to you, in plain sight. Before the layoffs, there were likely graphs presented publicly in meetings, with the arrows pointing dangerously down. Before the implosion of the family finances, there were likely other signs of a loved one’s impulsiveness, objects no one could afford that sat heavily, even elephant-like, in the room. The power to act, or avoid acting, is always there.
To be clear, this is not about victim-blaming. As the psychiatrist Anna Fels wrote today in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, there are plenty of cases in which intelligent adults don’t see the signs–because other intelligent adults have taken care to keep them hidden. As she says:
Our culture may embrace the redeemed sinner, but the person victimized — not so much. Lack of control over their destiny makes people queasy. Friends often unconsciously blame the victim, asking whether the betrayed person really “knew at some level” what was going on and had just been “in denial” about it. But the betrayed are usually as savvy as the rest of us. When one woman I know asked her husband, a closet alcoholic who drank secretly late at night, how he could have hidden his addiction for so long, he replied, “It took a lot of work.”
In these cases, the victims in question deserve our full support. As I said above, to be an adult is not to be omniscient. Sometimes, there are no signs to be read, no guiding white bars on the asphalt to glow and show the way – just the unmarked and dark country road of love and pain, to be navigated as best one can. I myself have been privy to many of these painful crimes, personal car wrecks involving people I love. I have seen the shame and the self-recrimination that comes from being robbed of your life story by an unforeseen betrayal. It’s not fair and it’s not okay and sometimes, it is just not your fault. Sometimes, it is the other guy (or girl) who made the mistake, and we’re the ones who get hit.
But that is all the more reason to look out–not just for our own sake, but for others. Because the red hands blinking “STOP” above the crosswalk are often there, if we have the courage and the presence of mind to look. To read the news. To understand our finances. To study our history.
And more often than not, there is time, plenty of time, to stop and think. To change careers or partners or plans. To make sure everyone gets home safely. To ask the hard questions the grownups don’t want us to ask. To teach ourselves what we don’t necessarily want to know. And to face the uncertainty on the other side of a tough decision and the risk of messing up.
Because that is what grownups, real grownups, do. And if you can read this, if you have the literacy skills and the technology and the maturity to get this far, then you are grown-up enough.
It is denial at worst, and naive innocence at best, to believe that by avoiding the work of making your own decisions, you can also avoid the consequences of the decisions that are made for you. Unfortunately, none of us are safe from that. In fact, this mentality makes us less safe than ever, because it means not asking other grownups the hard questions that they need to hear, in order to keep from messing things up for the rest of us.
So let’s build a future in which we teach kids to make their own way through the wonders of the world, not just follow others blindly through it. Let us teach them how to read the signs for themselves, because grownups make mistakes all the time–and they need to be kept accountable, too. Maybe that will be the move that makes the world a safer, more enlightened place.