Barack Obama reportedly calling Donald Trump “a corrupt motherfucker” and Barack Obama indicating there could be UFOs and Barack Obama mourning the death of Bo. We’ve recently had flashes of our beloved First Dad seeming as vulnerable and uncertain as we feel ourselves to be—this exemplar whom Brian Beutler described as always taking a “methodical, ethic-of-responsibility approach to the many crises he faced in his presidency.”
What I have always loved about Obama is his seemingly lifelong desire to grow up and be an adult. His second term coincided with my own desire to be released from this endless summer of childhood that we Americans have found ourselves locked into since probably the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 2014, the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott had an interesting essay about the death of adulthood and the institutionalization of trophies for showing up: “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse,” he wrote, “the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all.”
And having kids does not resolve the condition. People who defer adulthood tend to develop childrearing practices that inhibit their child’s desire to grow up. The child psychologist Adam Phillips wrote in 1996 that “in families where the parents behave like siblings, the risk is that the real children will feel too powerful, too uncontained, and so begin to be frightened of their own feelings.”
And even if you have some parents doing a pretty good job, children are very influenced by peers, who may have infantile parents whose maturity-deterrence can have a ripple effect. Phillips nails the obvious question that has hung like a raincloud for the past thirty years: “Adults who only want to be children,” he wrote, “are telling their children that they have no future or, at least, no future worth wanting.” Do we want to stay children because we have nothing to look forward to? Is it that we’ll never be able to buy a house and save to put our children through college?
Obama told us that being an adult means caring about other people’s children. I thought this a very astute way to speak against racism and discrimination, especially at a time when boomers and Gen-X’ers had embraced parenting to the degree where they curated their children rather than raised them in a social community, seeing them as private property and gated communities in apposition to the old days when neighbor ladies were in their rights to grab a rambunctious child by the shirt: “You settle down, you.”
In a 2018 interview in the Atlantic, Margaret Hagerman, author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, said that “this idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids.”
America has a history of not caring about other people’s kids. Last year, a resurfaced clip from a 1975 Bill Moyers PBS documentary got a lot of attention because it shows Black children in Queens (not Alabama) who have unknowingly bicycled into a white supremacist rally get called names and pelted with rocks as white adults do nothing. The documentary crew was covering the rally and caught this shocking incident by accident. And this was roughly the same time that Queens boy Trump was being prosecuted for not renting apartments to Black tenants.
The wrinkled faces at Trump rallies always strike me as surreal because they look like kids lined up at SantaLand, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a geezer willing to mock and publicly pick fights with children (or at least one, Greta Thunberg). It is a great irony that the guy who didn’t have a father present while growing up wants to be an adult so he can be a good dad himself, whereas the guy whose father cheated his son’s way into the Ivy League, got him out of military service, and gave him a million dollars to play with (and quickly blow) had nothing affectionate to say about his school-age son over four years of nonstop talking.
In his commencement address during last spring’s lockdown, Obama told kids that it is good to want to grow up. “All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you.”
I want to believe in the Parkland generation and Gen Z, which is our country’s most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet. According to Pew Research, 52% of post-millennials are non-Hispanic white, whereas for millennials a decade earlier, that number was 61%.
Obama told the Class of 2020 to, first, don’t be afraid and, second, do what you think is right: “Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy—that’s how little kids think.” He advised them to “ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.” Build a community and stand up for one another’s rights.
The First Dad is right, as he often is, but I am still apprehensive about this generation bucking the trend in deferring adulthood. Because even though we have an intractable problem with Republicans in this country, it’s both the right and left that don’t want to grow up; they just choose vastly different ways of not growing. §