“Peter Pan’s Escape from Neverland – A Cultural Crisis”
written by a member of the class of 2022
Throughout my childhood, I heard a lot of stories. Whether my mom or dad were reading to me, I was listening to an audiobook or flipping the pages myself, stories were a significant part of my youth. Of course, some of the stories that stuck with me the longest are the children's classics. Charlotte's Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, Winnie the Pooh, and The Giving Tree were all staples. But when I think back to my youth, one of the stories that jumps out to me the most is James M. Barrie's, Peter Pan. The world Barrie created was captivating to me. A tropical island where you can fly around with fairies, talk to mermaids, and have an occasional run-in with the devious Captain Hook – what more could a little boy want? I was drawn in by the classic adventure story, but along the way, what grasped me to the fullest was Peter Pan's mindset. Along with millions of others, I read the story and 'awed' at the cute little boy who never wanted to grow up. Unfortunately, very few of us understood how genuinely awful that mindset is. Yes, in the world of Peter Pan, never wanting to grow up is entirely harmless, but when translated to a society or a culture, continual and perpetual adolescence has a much uglier face.
I didn't know it at the time, but Peter Pan's line of thinking inspired the naming of a mental health phenomenon called "Peter Pan Syndrome" or perpetual adolescence. As the name suggests, it is a syndrome that represents the thoughts and ideas of someone who acts in a manner that Peter Pan would. Now I do not mean flying around fighting pirates or Native Americans. I mean someone who actively fights against and is afraid of adulthood and growing up. Crystal Raypole, in her article on Peter Pan Syndrome, helps explain this topic when she writes, "While there's no actual magic preventing children from physically growing up, some adults continue to cling to the carefree days of youth and find emotional and financial responsibilities challenging well into adulthood." Whether we like it or not, this mindset is rapidly encroaching on the minds of our youth through a culture that unknowingly propagates perpetual adolescence, harming the growth and maturation of future adults and our society at large. Therefore, we must strive with the greatest effort to ensure change and bring about more positive environments for the generations to come.
First and foremost, before we can attempt to fix Peter Pan Syndrome, we must aim to understand those struggling with it. Adulthood, for many highschoolers, including myself in certain moments, is a terrifying thought. As I grow closer to going to college, the idea of having a greater level of personal responsibility, facing the hardship and pain of life, and having to find my way in the world causes my anxiety about adulthood to grow as well. It is not all just some anxious fear, however. There is a deep sadness to leave the things of youth behind. After all, why would there not be? Adolescence can be a delightful time. Little responsibility mixed with high energy, excellent health, and a couple of great friends turns childhood into a concoction that is hard to resist. Thus, the idea of leaving so much of that freedom and fun behind is not a pleasant thought. The truth of the matter is, whether or not it is wise, I would choose to stay in these moments of time forever if given a choice.
To me, and millions like me, adult life seems too dull, too painful, and too stressful to willingly enter. It is an almost embarrassing concept to put into words, but one that is nonetheless true. Even though we are an aspirational species that looks to the future, right now, upcoming goals do not take the front seat (Sasse 14). Those who struggle with Peter Pan Syndrome yearn to stay comfortable in the present rather than face a possibly arduous future.
I, however, am lucky. I am not an adult yet. There is still time to change my mindset before I am twenty-five, living in my parents' basement and barely holding on to a job. But for those who are well into the years of legal adulthood, perpetual adolescence can be brutal. These people are defined by the phrase: "I can't adult today." This perspective implies that adulthood deviates from ordinary life. They believe that childhood and adolescence are the baseline experiences and that acting like an adult is an achievement and award in and of itself (Steinmetz). As a result, one can simply 'take a day off' from being an adult. This mindset is not based on reality and leads to many flaws in other areas of life. These real-life Peter Pans shy away from making big decisions and fulfilling responsibilities. They desire only to 'live for today.' Other behaviors are distorted as well. Emotional outbursts, lack of personal growth, the expectation of being taken care of, and fear of criticism are defining characteristics, and hard work and perseverance are foreign concepts. In extreme cases, these Peter Pans are utterly narcissistic and self-indulged. Selfishness reigns in their heart, and nothing is more important than their own comfort (Raypole). Of course, everything is a spectrum, and some people might experience these symptoms more acutely than others. But overall, those who struggle with Peter Pan Syndrome can be defined as children in adult bodies - a genuinely disturbing concept.
Perpetual adolescence is a relatively new phenomenon, so its impact is not entirely known; however, most believe it will not be positive. After all, how could it be? How can a society continue to be effective and competent when child-like adults make up its backbone? How does a nation flourish if everyone flees from responsibility? How can we expect to succeed if a proper understanding of hard work is forgotten? Clearly, this grave scenario we find ourselves in must be altered.
To understand how to set our nation and the next generations on the right track, we must first understand how this culture marked by Peter Pan Syndrome and perpetual adolescence has been cultivated over the past several centuries. To penetrate society as much as Peter Pan Syndrome has penetrated American culture, a variety of influences must be enacting this change. Four significant factors stand out: overbearing consumerism; unbridled pornography; age segregation; and misguided upbringing.
The first stop on America's journey toward Peter Pan Syndrome is overbearing consumerism and the focus on immediate gratification. In America today, it seems as if consumption is not limited. We have the tools, funds, and resources to get almost whatever we want, whenever we want it. This eternal appetite for consumption has effectively created a weak society. The classic phrase by G. Michael Hopf reigns true, "Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times." This circle of society is ever-present. Every nation that has lasted long enough has felt this motion. The part, however, that is most pertinent to this topic is the simple "good times create weak men." America's unrelentless and almost violent success as a nation has cemented this unfortunate characteristic into reality over the past decades. As a result, America is on the downward arc. This trend is hard to combat, and, at some level, the cycle will inevitably continue, but we must at least try to battle against it.
Ben Sasse, writer of the book "The Vanishing American Adult" and United States Senator, affirms this line of reasoning about modern-day consumption, "Our young are more insulated from necessity...because we are the richest people the world has ever known... As a result, they breathe the air of a culture that has transformed what used to be 'wants' into norms and therefore 'needs.'" Turning 'wants' into 'needs' indirectly poisons our minds. After all, people believe their lives will crash down around them when they do not get what they think they need.
"Whatever makes you happy" is the phrase that is at the base of modern consumerism (Sasse 156). This idea of constant consumerism directly links to immaturity, and I have found this to be true in my own life as well. Over the years, and still now in moments of weakness, I have found myself continually seeking the newest and greatest things. I have set my affections on the 'next big thing,' whatever it may have been. One example from my childhood was my relationship with music. When I was nine or ten years old, I had a bizarre obsession with musical instruments. It wasn't because I really liked playing them or liked music theory. It was because I thought it was really cool to play them – specifically the guitar. Images of teenage celebrities with their guitars swirled around in my head. I pleaded with my parents to get me one, and eventually one Christmas they surprised me with my very own guitar. I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, I was not ready for the time and determination it would take to learn how to play the guitar, and my obsession with the instrument slowly waned. I set the guitar in the corner of my room and did not pick it up again. Just like that, I was on to the next obsession.
Now I'm sure that my experience resonates with many. Whether we see it in ourselves or others, we all understand the idea of not being content with what we have. We continually believe that the material possessions around us will make us happier, so we keep indulging (Sasse 151). This is the core concept of why consumerism is so harmful: we always want more. American culture has made it incredibly easy to indulge ourselves in this thinking. Fast food allows us to skip the traditional labor pains of cooking and instantly be served whatever cuisine we like. Online shopping lets us buy products while skipping the conventional supermarket experience. Tax websites do our taxes for us, and automated vacuums tidy our houses. Everything is made to be easier, quicker, and less complex. While this alluring concept most assuredly offers benefits, it also reaps disadvantages. If almost every day-to-day activity in someone's life is easy, quick, and simple, then they will be ill-prepared to deal with the abnormal moments of difficulty, pain, and stress. America has taken so many minor problems away that many don't know how to deal with the significant issues when they come (Sasse 160-162). Now overbearing consumerism and the ease of product consumption leads to another very real blemish on modern-day living. Beyond the ease of fast food, online shopping, or whatever makes you happy, the second stop on America's journey toward Peter Pan Syndrome is unbridled pornography.
Sexually explicit content has slowly crept into modern society and now has taken the main stage. Our culture is so steeped in it that a study by the University of Alberta found that nearly 90% of boys and 70% of girls have been exposed to sexually explicit content. For most of these people, this is not accidental. It is shown that 63% of men aged 18-30 consume pornographic material more than one time a week, and more than one-third of boys admit to watching porn more times than they could possibly count (Sasse 40). These trends of pornography consumption go hand in hand with internet usage. In previous decades men had to make a great effort to access porn. Social interactions and the monetary barrier stopped many, especially the youth, from accessing this elicit material. But now, there is nothing stopping anyone from consuming sexual imagery online. This means that due to the infinite ease and anonymity of the internet, one can watch pornography for free whenever they want to (Sasse 40). It is not a niche side of the internet either. Neuroscience News clocked Pornhub (the most extensive free porn site globally) at 33.5 billion site visits in 2018 alone. Additionally, it is shown that 30% of data on the internet is pornography, a number that is exponentially higher than Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix combined (Bhushan). Clearly pornography has a chokehold on our society, but maybe more importantly, it has a chokehold on the minds and hearts of our youth.
One may wonder how pornography is connected to Peter Pan Syndrome. To understand this, we have to look at the nature of pornography. First, it is addictive like a drug and leads to depression. When someone watches porn, the brain releases dopamine at an extremely high level; this 'high' is comparable to someone taking drugs, smoking, or drinking alcohol ("Watching Pornography"). Naturally, the body wants to feel the sensation again and so keeps returning to the illicit material. Additionally, once the body experiences the extreme peak of dopamine gained from porn, it is hooked on that high. Though the brain experiences other dopamine releases from day-to-day activities, nothing compares to that of pornography, and so the brain is dissatisfied. The more the material is consumed, the less other experiences release the dopamine the body craves. Thus, the only way to regain that initial feeling is to return to the sexual images – the only way to feel something of any comparison is to watch porn. When other experiences and moments in life are depleted of joy, depression naturally follows. This mass pornography addiction pushes depression and anxiety to levels never seen before in today's youth ("Watching Pornography"). One sharp side effect of depression is demotivation. This is because those who are depressed are so wrapped up in their sadness that almost nothing carries any sort of weight, and therefore they lose almost all motivation for living life well. Thus, a society entrenched in pornography is a society that is entrenched in demotivation, and demotivation is an acute symptom of Peter Pan Syndrome.
The second connection between unbridled pornography and Peter Pan Syndrome lies in the cognitive development of children. Pornography has been shown to erode the brain's prefrontal cortex, and "damage to the prefrontal cortex in adulthood is termed hypofrontality," which Neuroscience News states "predisposes an individual to behave compulsively and make poor decisions." It is not a crazy conclusion to make that a mass damaging of the prefrontal cortex leads to a less efficient, more child-like society. Neuroscience News continues: "It’s somewhat paradoxical that adult entertainment may revert our brain wiring to a more juvenile state. The much greater irony is that while porn promises to satisfy and provide sexual gratification, it delivers the opposite.” These effects only increase when impacting the more pliable and moldable minds of children. Therefore, pornography is physically hurting the brains of future adults who are supposed to be the backbone of our nation’s fate.
All of the side effects and consequences of pornography come together as some of the prominent ingredients of Peter Pan syndrome. Children, teenagers, and young adults access pornography at absurdly high levels, which translates to demotivation and an erosion of the prefrontal cortex. As a result, depression, poorer decision-making, a lack of confidence, and a rewiring of the brain to a more juvenile state are staples in younger members of society (“Watching Pornography”). With the mass addiction of a generation, fewer high-functioning and mature adults will follow. Thus, a society that focuses on porn falls into immaturity and Peter Pan Syndrome.
Pornography has a tight grip on today’s youth. One way to have loosened its hold and stop such a violent shift toward Peter Pan Syndrome would have been the advice and warning of those who have already fallen into porn’s pervasive teeth. Unfortunately, it is becoming exceedingly difficult for that wisdom to be shared because those who have the advice and the people who need to hear the advice rarely ever cross paths. This leads to the third stop on America’s journey to Peter Pan Syndrome: age segregation.
The world is forever changing. Constant growth and development in the way people go about their lives have had profound effects. But one area that it seems we have changed too much is how we group members of our nation according to age. Today, someone’s closest circle of friends is almost entirely defined by how old they are (Sasse 91). This practice has come about in the last one hundred years or so. In fact, Sen. Sasse would argue that generations gone by would be tremendously shocked by how we organize our social life and “the ways we segregate the young from older people in our communities.” Today, the young and old rarely mix, schooling is almost entirely decided by age, and retirement homes exist as entire communities for older adults.
Simply put, barring familial ties, we generally stick with people our own age until we die. The amount of age segregation in our society is so prevalent that age is one of the most, if not the most, defining characteristic of our youth. Sasse echoes this as he writes: “Today, young people’s lives are driven by one predominant fact: birth year.” One hundred years ago, age did not play as significant a role as now. Single room schoolhouses of the past brought all ages of children to the same classroom to learn, youth worked on farms and in factories with people of all ages, and even boys as young as eleven were enlisted into the military to fight alongside elders who were well into their sixties (Gentile). Age was more an afterthought than a defining characteristic. Today, the young stay with the young, and the old with the old. Thus, we give our youth minimal perspective on the world.
This limited perspective brings forth several major impacts. First, it keeps children from seeing death up-close-and-personal. Watching those dying and witnessing death firsthand, especially when it is someone you care about, brings a new perspective to life. It forces one, as Sen. Sasse describes it, “to ask foxhole questions that demand honest answers about life, meaning, relationships, insecurities, priorities real and neglected.” These are vital to a greater understanding of life and an easier transition to adulthood. He continues, “Our children shouldn’t have to wait until their own existential panic to wrestle with such questions” (Sasse 101). Thus, simply being surrounded by those situations in which one has to question reality and view life through a lens that is not one of sunshine and rainbows has a profound effect on maturation (Sasse 101).
The second impact of age segregation is that it keeps children from seeing life done wisely. In a similar vein to viewing death, viewing life done in a wise manner makes children think about and try to emulate those characteristics. Unfortunately, this is no longer as common. For example, children very rarely see their parents working to put food on the table. An occasional ‘Bring Your Child to Work’ day cannot replace the years of seeing your parents working hard on the family farm. Viewing this hard work is vital to helping children create their own sense of perseverance (Sasse 122). Thus, when ages are separated to the extent that children do not see hard work being played out in their communities, the youth are stunted and further pushed into a mindset of Peter Pan Syndrome.
Another impact of age segregation is the lack of passing on life lessons. Older generations have lessons, morals, and values that children need. But without regular interaction due to age segregation, these lessons are lost. In fact, America has started to ignore the ideas of elders and even ignore the elders themselves. In sharp contrast to societies of more archaic times, elders no longer are held in a place of honor. Paul Stoller, PhD and Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University, echoes this sentiment in his article on the wisdom of elders. He writes, “Considered the custodians of wisdom, elders in many societies enjoy considerable degrees of social reverence,” He continues later to say, “In contemporary American society many, if not most, elders are neither respected nor revered.” It is such a saddening concept that the ones that have experienced, seen, and gone through the most, the ones with the most words and the most wisdom are also the ones who generally are not listened to. Stoller writes, “Elders are reservoirs of knowledge and experience, critical for preserving history, traditions, and survival skills.” These aspects are vitally desired and vitally necessary to produce effective adults, yet practically ignored. As a result, we see a wave of real-life Peter Pans in our culture.
Age segregation keeps children from seeing life from a deeper perspective through being exposed to death, understanding the value of hard work through actively watching perseverance being played out, and learning vital lessons through a lack of regular interactions with society's elders. All three of these concepts are essential to maturation and being an effective adult. Therefore, with the dominance of age segregation in our nation, children are largely failing to mature appropriately and so fall into perpetual adolescence.
Maybe even more important than the exposure between generations is the impact of parents and schooling on the youth. This leads to the final stop on America’s journey toward Peter Pan Syndrome: misguided upbringing. Children grow under the guidance of both parenting and schooling. Sometimes those are one and the same, but for most youth, they are two completely different worlds. Unfortunately, these worlds are slowly becoming more and more misguided, and our children’s futures are at risk because of it. There are many reasons why this is the case.
The first impact of parenting on Peter Pan Syndrome is that it has shifted further and further away from an authoritative model. Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist, argues that there are four main approaches that parents fall into. The first of which is authoritarian. Authoritarian parents mix high expectations and discipline with poor communication and a general coldness toward their children. The next type of parenting style is uninvolved. These parents are the sharp opposite of authoritative and show both low support and low expectations. Next, permissive parents offer high support but meager demands. And finally, authoritative parents are nurturing and warm yet still have high expectations and discipline (Muraco).
These parenting styles are not all created equal, however. A study completed by the Society for Research in Child Development in 1992 showed that of all parenting styles, authoritative parents provided the highest level of success to their children. The organizers of the study postulated that this was because the parents had both a nurturing and warm countenance as well as high expectations and discipline for their children. Combining these qualities together keeps fear and resentment out of the household and still garners high accolades and pushes the child toward success (Steinberg). Unfortunately, far too often we see parents fall into the other parenting styles in today's society. One merely has to look around to see the excessive numbers of uninvolved or permissive parents who have few expectations for their children.
These findings about uninvolved parents are supported by the Pew Research Center’s study conducted in July of 2020. It showed that 41% of births in America were to unmarried women. While marriage and having both parents involved in a child’s life do not directly go hand in hand at this point in the world, there is an apparent intellectual correlation between unmarried women and fathers leaving the home. With more and more parents not being present in their children’s lives, we see more and more children underachieve their potential (Livingston). This is a similar line of thinking as the age segregation argument from earlier. If children cannot see father figures in their life who push them towards success and serve as role models for perseverance and hard work, then children are stunted in their growth. Therefore, parents who are maybe unknowingly permissive or uninvolved in parenting style, unfortunately bring their children to a lower standard of excellence (Livingston). This lower standard directly impacts the child's view of adulthood and further pushes them toward Peter Pan Syndrome by being satisfied with a more meager and less fortunate place in life.
The second impact of parenting on Peter Pan Syndrome relates to overinvolved, instead of uninvolved, parents. Thus, enter ‘Wendy Syndrome.’ Just like Peter Pan Syndrome was named after the mindset and actions of Peter Pan, Wendy Syndrome is based on the activities of Wendy concerning Peter Pan (Raypole). Throughout James Barrie’s classic tale, Peter runs amok and does whatever he pleases. But subtly in the background, Wendy is the one who cleans all his clothes, prepares dinner, and does all the things Peter Pan doesn’t want to do. So, as Crystal Raypole would describe it, Wendy Syndrome is when “females in this role often enable the Peter Pan in their lives, often without realizing it. They might do this by making decisions for them, tidying up their messes, and offering one-sided emotional support.”
Now I would argue that this doesn’t just have to be women, and it doesn’t have to be as extreme as Raypole described it. Nonetheless, the common theme is that parents, traditionally mothers, are so wrapped up in loving their children that they make life too easy for them. They serve life on a platter in bite-size portions for their children. This is all well and good until the child must move on with their life and is confronted with the fact that life doesn’t always come in the bite-size portions they are used to and sometimes tastes terrible. Even just the thought of this foul taste is enough to scare the youth away from wanting to grow up and further cement them into the comfort of their childhood lives – a concept that those struggling with Peter Pan Syndrome understand and relate to greatly.
The impact of misguided upbringing not only shows up through parenting but also through schooling. Unfortunately, modern schooling carries a detriment along with it. An article by George Charles Roche III highlights this idea when he discusses the failings of American schooling over the past several decades. He argues that since 1969 schools have acted more like a daycare than an institution to prepare our youth for the future. At the same time, some parents view schooling as a replacement for parenting. This means that in many instances, each side wants the other to do most of the work in raising the youth, and so, unfortunately, the children’s upbringing is worsened (Roche). Of course, there are many instances of the opposite, but on the whole, we as a society lean towards children receiving a more misguided upbringing.
In his article Roche continues to talk about how schools today encourage students to only care about completing assignments instead of caring about the self-discipline needed to get those assignments done and the inherent learning and mental growth gained along the way. Through my conversations with teachers, parents, and other adults, and through my own experience, I have found that schooling, in its effective form, is all about learning how to learn. The content of subjects is less important than the process of learning. Realistically, no one has to find the area under a curve in their day-to-day life. No one has to be able to balance chemical equations or solve for the inertia of a frisbee. No one has to understand what Shakespeare’s Macbeth means or what the significance of the color green in The Great Gatsby is. All these things are not used by most people on a day-to-day basis.
Now I am not arguing for the removal of these subjects, however. Instead, I am saying we must better understand why we are learning them. Well, from my experience, most of the time in education, it is all about the journey and not the destination. When you are learning math and science, yes, you are understanding the world around you, but you are also developing your mind to be logical and more analytical. When you are reading literature, yes, you are appreciating art, but you are also garnering a sense of the world you have not seen before and are thinking about topics without ever experiencing them. Writing, science, math, and literature all help you think. They make your brain more powerful and more ready to learn and complete the tasks necessary for adulthood, as well being able to learn concepts and ideas more easily in the adult workplace. In addition, assignments like grueling exams and fifteen-page papers, help you learn something even more valuable: the power of hard work.
Without a clear understanding of these benefits of education, students tend to slack off and not care about school. Without a proper motivation, they just get by and are content with “good enough.” This, in a broad sense, puts them into a worse place to face adulthood and pushes them further toward Peter Pan Syndrome. Simply put, showing our adolescents that hard work is essential and “conveying that good hard work is preferable to “getting by” is a vital concept for children to learn” (Roche). That idea of ‘getting by’ directly correlates to perpetual adolescence because Peter Pans view low productivity as good enough to satisfy “successful” adulthood (Raypole).
Overall, in both the household and schooling, a misguided upbringing is a determining factor when it comes to the outcome of children’s lives. The life lessons, growth, and habits given to children during these years stay with them forever. Therefore, a good base is necessary. Unfortunately, many in this generation are not receiving the strong foundation that they need and so find themselves lured by the pull of Peter Pan Syndrome.
Now we reach a turn in the road. At this point, it should be clear how perpetual adolescence has come about. Rampant consumerism, unbridled pornography, age segregation, and misguided upbringing are all influences that allow the toxic and immature tendencies of youth to escape past their bounds into adulthood. But recognizing the causes is not enough. We must figure out how to stop it for the sake of our future as a culture.
Given all the elements that go into Peter Pan Syndrome, it is logical to conclude that fleeing from these things will lessen the influence of perpetual adolescence on the next generations. These causes will never go away completely, but we must strive with the greatest effort to limit their impact on our nation. Each of these failures of society today has a relatively direct counter to it. Consuming less might look like teaching our children the importance of patience, gratitude, and being content with what we have, as well as fighting the urge to turn ‘wants’ into ‘needs.’ Stopping the hold of pornography might look like teaching our children the real danger of addiction, infidelity, and mental erosion, as well as killing the stigma around pornography addiction and getting help for it. Ending age segregation might look like encouraging our children to create bonds with older members of society and actively seeking out the wisdom they hold, as well as including them in the adult world to keep it from becoming mysterious and foreboding. And bettering our children’s upbringing might look like making a solid effort to build trust, honesty, communication, and high aspirations for our children, as well as thinking critically about how schools are teaching our youth. Now all of this is not some walk in the park. It will take dedicated time, effort, and patience to see all these things through, but it is a first step.
Beyond simply doing the opposite of what has gotten our nation into this issue of Peter Pan Syndrome, several more steps must be taken to be successful in the fight. We must also rethink adolescence, grow empathy, and learn to face the difficult realities of life.
The first leg on the journey of helping America with Peter Pan Syndrome is to rethink adolescence. Traditionally, the age of adolescence is when individuals mature from children into adults. Ancient Rome clearly defined this as between the ages of fourteen and twenty and called it pubertas (Sasse 15). In America, we have decided that adulthood legally starts at eighteen. We have subconsciously declared that encircling the earth around the sun eighteen times somehow constitutes more maturity, responsibility, and overall effectiveness in life. Of course, we logically know that this is not the case. We have all seen that one teenager who is better at being an adult than some twenty-six-year-olds. Age has very little to do with maturity (Ray). The idea that when you turn eighteen, you are magically an adult is entirely false. Thus, as a culture we need other ways of determining maturity and adulthood.
Throughout time, different nations have had varying depictions of adolescence, some better than others. Therefore, it is beneficial to look back on the more effective standards for adulthood and try to match them to our own culture. Consider the Spartans of ancient Greece. Sparta was a dominating city-state and was unrivaled in military might and power. They were known as the strongest and bravest men, and this was in large part due to how they raised their children (Mckay). From the age of seven, Spartan boys left the family home to go to school. This school was separated into classes, but it was by aptitude instead of age. To rise the ranks and eventually graduate, students were required to pass strength, endurance, and refinement tests. Next, at roughly age eighteen to twenty, but ultimately whenever they completed the prior tests, young men would separate themselves from society. They secluded themselves in the countryside with only a cloak for a time, forcing themselves to learn resourcefulness and self- reliance. If they passed this challenge, they became a full-time soldier. These feats, however, did not mean an end to maturation. Within the army, soldiers ate at vast dining tables with a myriad of men, both young and old, and everyone in between. As a result, they were mentored further and garnered a brotherhood that lasted a lifetime (Mckay).
To be clear, I am not arguing that we should be as extreme as the ancient Spartans were. However, I am saying that American society today could learn a lot from the Spartan principles.
Rigorous exercise and schooling as well as leaving society to grow and mature would all greatly improve the quality of people that come out of adolescence. The only problem is that such a rigorous and extreme version of this would be looked down upon by many. Therefore, a good alternative is to encourage such concepts at the familial level. Enter family rites of passage.
There are seemingly no real ‘coming of age’ ceremonies left in American society today. Across the world, however, there are many. Jewish cultures have the bar and bat mitzvah. Hispanic societies have quinceaneras. And a Brazilian tribe even forces young men to stick their hands in a glove of fire ants before they are considered an adult. While some of these are more playful and others more serious, the successful rites of passage are the ones that prepare the child for the hardships that lay ahead of them. Sen. Sasse continues this line of thinking, “While they frequently involve hardship, they’re not meant to make kids miserable; they’re intended to prime them for the inevitable tribulations that come with adulthood and instill in them the work ethic and perseverance necessary to survive upon leaving home.”
While children may be learning these lessons outside of the ceremonies, these ceremonies themselves are so important. A boisterous moment engrains a concept, idea, or lesson deeper into the brain (Lewis 97). However, in America today, those coming age ceremonies are “more automatic and less purposeful than achievement-based rituals” (Sasse 16). What Sasse is implying here is that in America, while students are learning and growing in some areas, the bar for gaining responsibility is still dependent on age, i.e., sixteen-year-olds driving and twenty- one-year-olds drinking. So, this is where the root of the problem lies. Our culture does not have these rites of passage strewn throughout childhood to ensure the steady growth and maturation of our children. While they are present here and there in select families, they are most definitely not present across the board. Thus, if we want to make children as well prepared as possible for adulthood so that they embrace it instead of running from it, as a culture we must focus on these rites of passage. The specific type of ceremony and the specific age is less important as there are many different options. The point, however, is that we must strive to put these coming-of-age ceremonies in place. Some family traditions include greater levels of responsibility after a kill in a hunt. Others use the giving of a sword and a family crest to commemorate growth and maturation (Lewis 11). It does not matter what it is. It must simply help prepare, grow, and inspire children to be more like adults, whether through hardship, pain, or growth.
Rites of passage and ceremonies are vital to the maturation of children because they emblazon the idea or concept into the minds of the child. Robert Lewis, in his book entitled, Raising a Modern-Day Knight, echoed this statement, “Ceremonies are those special occasions that weave the fabric of human existence. Weddings. Award banquets. Graduations. The day you became an Eagle Scout or were accepted into a fraternity. We remember because of Ceremony.” It only makes sense that the important lessons for our children are accompanied with a ceremony or rite of passage. If this is the case, those lessons will be more easily remembered. These lessons are the very concepts and ideas that mature the youth and prepare them for adulthood. Therefore, without those concepts being further engrained through ceremonies, Peter Pan Syndrome is more likely to follow.
The next leg on the journey of helping America with Peter Pan Syndrome is to grow empathy. Empathy is one of the many defining characteristics of what it means to be an adult. Without it, the world becomes cruel, dejected, and painful, and so empathy means everything (Cherry). In an article on this topic, Kendra Cherry defines it by saying, “Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place.” This is a very powerful and important skill to have because it builds healthy relationships. “Empathy,” as Cherry continues, “allows people to build connections with others. By understanding what people are thinking and feeling, people are able to respond appropriately in social situations.” This quite obviously deems empathy as a vastly important ability. This is for one other reason as well. Empathy helps alleviate the natural selfishness that we are inclined to as humans and even more so as children. If you can get out of your own head and have empathy for those around you, understand what they are going through, and feel their pain, then selfishness has a much harder time rearing its ugly head. Growing empathy, then, is vital to combating selfishness, a key symptom of Peter Pan Syndrome.
There are millions of ways to grow empathy, but they boil down to one main concept. To grow empathy, one must practice seeing the world from someone else’s perspective (Cherry). Now, this can mean a variety of things, but two aspects that are slowly disappearing are reading fiction and traveling to see.
The genre of fiction is almost completely the exploration of the human experience (Schmidt). The stories talk about life and death, joy and sorrow, pain and elation, love and heartbreak, and anything and everything that the writer can dream up. And so, with such a broad spectrum of ideas, almost every type of situation, dilemma, and issue has been expressed. Thus, when someone reads fictional literature, they are living through stories, events, and lives they would most likely never be able to experience otherwise. They learn about patience from the couch in their living room. They fight monsters without ever picking up a sword. They are betrayed without the loss of friends. They experience the death of a loved one without anyone dying. They are heartbroken before they ever fall in love. Their outlook is widened to include places, people, races, genders, and experiences not even possible to understand without reading (Schmidt). Therefore, reading fiction builds empathy because through these stories, children can
walk in someone else’s shoes, which in turn forces them to realize that their shoes are not the only ones out there. Other struggles exist. Other pain exists. And so, it is selfish and futile to view the world with themselves as the main character. It is exactly this selfish line of thinking that Peter Pan Syndrome feeds off.
In a very similar vein, we must travel to see. In America today, the purpose of vacations is generally either one of two options. Either families spend their time simply relaxing, or they travel the world. Unfortunately, it seems as if most families would much rather go to the beach for a week than travel to Africa, for example. Now, this is where the problem lies. There is nothing wrong with occasional vacations for the sake of relaxation. But when all we do is sit on a beach and tan, we are missing out on valuable experiences. Traveling the world to see rather than to relax fosters life lessons and empathy along the way. Just as books provide an exploration of the human experience through imagination, traveling the world to see brings the exploration of the human experience directly in front of you. While you may not see a hero fighting monsters or experience heartbreak when you spend a week in South America, you instead find something even better: the realization that your life and the way that you view the world is not the only way to view the world (Sasse 180). A week of seeing the living conditions of a third world country, the cruelty of an authoritarian government, the struggle of getting water from a well, or even the frustration of a language barrier could broaden anyone’s perspective, and much more so that of a child. Traveling to see, instead of merely relaxation, has an immense ability to grow one’s empathy.
These two aspects, reading fiction and traveling to see, are certainly not the only means of growing empathy. It can probably be cultivated in infinite ways. These two ideas are just a start. No matter how it is accomplished, as long as we are practicing viewing the world from someone else’s perspective, empathy will grow. This is vital because empathy is what keeps us from being the selfish and self-centered narcissists that some real-life Peter Pans are.
Rethinking adolescence and growing empathy are not the only ways to actively fight against this phenomenon of children fearing adulthood. The final leg on the journey of helping America with Peter Pan syndrome is to face the difficult realities of life. At some point, every child must leave their home, start a new life for themselves, and face the fact that this life of theirs is not always sunshine and rainbows. Inevitably in this journey, they will experience some sort of hardship. No amount of parenting, schooling, reading, or traveling will change this fact. Life sometimes is awful. Life sometimes has its terrible moments. Sin and the fall of mankind have so tainted this world that life and our journey in it can be more treacherous, more stressful, more tedious, and more exhausting than it feels like we can bear. Every heartbreak, every stressful day, every regret, every loss, and every pain point to the fact this world is deeply and acutely ruined. Encountering this hardship is a fear that almost every soon-to-be-adult and all who struggle with Peter Pan Syndrome have in the back of their mind. We understand that the pain will come, yet we do not feel as if we are prepared enough to make it through, and so we run from it. We run from adulthood because we are fearful. What if we fail? What if the hardship becomes too much? What if the stress takes over? What if we lose? As a comfort against these anxieties, I would argue that there are two main solutions: inner strength and outer strength, and both have their place in this world.
Inner strength is exactly what it sounds like. It comes from within. It is the sort of self- discipline and perseverance that can get one through the less impactful hardships of life, and it can be summed up in one word: grit. Angela Duckworth, a schoolteacher turned public speaker, argues that grit is “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” This grit is what
generally separates the successful from the unsuccessful and the mature adult from the immature one. Duckworth, during her years of teaching inner-city students, found that the one requirement for success is not beauty, riches, social status, or even IQ, but it is grit. With this definition, she argues that if someone has passion and perseverance, being able to tough it out when things get hard, they will have a much greater chance of succeeding in whatever they may be doing. Practically this looks like doing the things you do not want to do. It might look like staying up another hour at night to finish the homework. It might look like going to the gym on a day when you just want to be lazy. And it might even look like going above and beyond in the workplace. Regardless, grit is the inner strength necessary to be an effective adult and face the solvable challenges that life has to offer.
Now I do understand that this is a very easy thing to say and a much harder one to put into reality. There have been more times than I can count when I tell myself I am going to do something but end up doing the opposite. Sometimes I fail at simply pushing through. But that’s okay. Grit does not mean perfection; it simply means not giving up, and it is the self-discipline to do things when you don’t want to. You can try to grow it in yourself, but at the end of the day, grit is simply something that will grow the more you do it (Sasse 140). There is no five-step plan for success. You, in a specific moment, must simply have the mental fortitude to tell yourself you are going to get through the stress or discomfort you are facing. Grit means not giving up.
As shown, this inner strength can get you rather far in this life. It can help you face the realities of life through calm confidence that you are not a quitter. However, sometimes life gets too painful. Sometimes the more trivial discomforts turn into life-shaking and life-altering moments that seem impossible to get through. Personal discipline does not heal cancer. Hard work does not deal with the pain of losing a loved one. Grit does not fix a broken marriage, and perseverance does not end deep mental illness. Sometimes the things inside of us that are most troubling and most painful cannot be fixed without something else outside of our own strength. Sometimes inner strength is not enough, and this is where outer strength comes in.
Now when I say outer strength, I do not mean simply outside of yourself. I mean outside of this world, this universe, outside of time itself. Outer strength is the strength of God. It is a simple concept – one that every person who has heard the Gospel understands – but it is nonetheless true: a relationship with Christ gives the hope to continue on. When leaning on grit eventually fails us in our fight with cancer, death, broken marriages, mental illness, and every other deeply painful experience, Jesus shoulders the burden. The assurance of a loving father who covers all our sins, mistakes, and pain gives us the power and hope to go through any and every hardship. Why should anyone be afraid of the future, of being an adult, of walking through deep and inevitably painful life moments when Christ is right by our side? Simply put, excruciating pain will eventually arrive, but God is the ultimate hope to get through that pain.
To be clear, this hope is not because God numbs the pain. The pain will always still be there, and we will all feel it with every ounce of our beings. The hope, however, lies in our confidence that the pain is being used for our good. James 1:2-4 echoes this concept, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James is saying that trials produce in us spiritual and personal growth, and God uses tribulations to create in us a lasting maturity. After all, G. Michael Hopf’s classic saying still reigns true. “Hard times create strong men.” So, the moments in which our real-life Peter Pans feel as if the world is crumbling down around them and they are too ill- prepared or even too weak to continue are the moments that God uses for our growth. Those are the moments that make us flourishing adults, and those are the moments that make us more mature. Therefore, if we cling to our relationship with Christ and stand confident in the fact that whatever happens is for our good, then we can have true and lasting hope, which takes the bitterness out of even the direst of pains.
Therefore, the ultimate solution to Peter Pan syndrome is Christ. Every other topic and concept listed before is still valid. They all work and are a major part of the process of putting off childish things and eagerly entering adulthood. But at the end of the day, without Christ and without a relationship with the One who holds all our burdens and covers all our sins, everything else is futile. God, when added to our poor and meager lives, changes everything, and a relationship with Christ propels us with confidence into the sometimes-scary world of adulthood. Jesus plus nothing equals everything (Tchividjian). And with that, the journey of exploring Peter Pan Syndrome ends.
In conclusion, Peter Pan Syndrome and perpetual adolescence are both very real and very dangerous to our society. They are marked by passivity, selfishness, a lack of motivation, and most of all, the fear of becoming an adult. Throughout the past decades, this poor mindset has been cultivated through many unfortunate acts of our society, including overbearing consumerism, unbridled pornography, age segregation, and misguided upbringing. However, to fix such a mindset of perpetual adolescence, one must not merely combat each of these points directly. While that is a start, we as a society must commit to rethinking adolescence, growing empathy, and facing the difficult realities of life. If all of these are applied, then our nation has a chance to come alongside these struggling men and women who are trapped in selfish and demotivated environments and cannot see a way out. Not only that, but youth like me will have a fighting chance to conquer Peter Pan Syndrome and not carry our childish ways into adulthood.
Looking back at Peter Pan today, his lifestyle is not as enviable as it was when I was a kid. Sure, being able to fly is pretty cool, but I’ll pass on everything else. The mindset, the selfishness, the immaturity are all rather disgusting when I look at it now. However, can you really blame him? Can you blame the boy that was lost in a baby carriage, had magic do everything for him, was surrounded by no elder to mentor him, and was unrestrained by any rules or laws? Can you really blame him for never wanting to leave? Maybe if his situation had been different, he wouldn’t have been so selfish. Maybe if he had grown up in a better environment, the story would have looked drastically different. At the end of the day, people are products of their surroundings, and so for the sake of generations to come we must strive with the greatest effort to ensure the surroundings and environments are a constructive, thoughtful, and positive force in their lives. If not, they could end up fearing adulthood. They could end up living in their parents' basement at thirty years old without a goal or aspiration in sight. They could end up being Peter Pan. One Peter Pan is cute and interesting. A whole generation of Peter Pans is cultural suicide. Therefore, let us keep Peter Pan where he belongs, between the pages and in Neverland.