Waste of Time
We came home one evening after a hectic day of meetings, classes, appointments, and burst into the house like two steam engines at full speed. There, sitting in the living room, was our-teen-age son, feet up, eyes closed and a contented smile on his face.
“What are you doing?” we demanded.
“Sitting here. Why?”
“Don’t you have anything to do? You could at least have taken out the garbage.” We then bombarded him with a list of useful, time-consuming activities. We worried that he was just wasting time.
Parents waste an extraordinary amount of time worrying about their adolescents wasting time. But for an adolescent, many activities parents consider wasteful are in fact worthwhile. For example, parents may complain that teenagers spend too much time daydreaming. Yet fantasy has important functions in teenagers’ development. In daydreams, adolescents try out various roles as they search for the direction they want to take in their lives.
One young woman, currently in medical school, admitted that her fantasies had been the principal factor behind her career choice. She recalled that early in her teens a medical novel or movie would “set her off,” and she would imagine herself in the role of a saviour. In her fantasy life she was rehearsing to be a doctor. Teenagers also use daydreams to practise their reactions to future situations. One was thrown into a panic when faced with an interview for a summer job. First, he pictured the interviewer as an ogre. He fantasized the questions he would be asked and devised appropriate answers. Then he imagined a kindly interviewer and suitable responses to his questions. By the time he actually went to the interview, he felt like an “old hand.”
Not all daydreams serve important developmental purposes, of course. Many are simply ways of temporarily escaping the stresses of everyday life. But even these fantasies have some immediate, tension-reducing value.
Parents also complain about the rambling conversations teenagers have with one another over the telephone. Why, they wonder, do teenagers spend so much time “saying nothing,” rather than getting their homework finished? In fact, these apparently pointless conversations are often a means through which adolescents check out their perceptions of the world with other adolescents, and gain a realistic view of themselves and others.
On one particular stormy night, it took three hours for our son to decide not to take out the car. One look outside was enough to convince us that the roads were impassable. However, our son could reach this decision only after endless exchanges with friends.
Parents, nevertheless, have a valid point in their complaints. The issue is not really wasting time, but rather the recognition that any kind of achievement requires work—and parents may be concerned that their adolescents do not fully appreciate this fundamental fact. They feel guilty about requiring adolescents to work, and yet they also worry that their teenagers will never learn to work if they aren’t forced to. No one can tell parents exactly what to expect from their adolescents at any particular time. We cannot say that when an adolescent is one, every parent should expect a specific amount of work, and at sixteen this amount should be increased by so much. But we urge parents to be consistent, and to convey their expectations clearly to their teenagers.
For dealing with some of the problems teenagers and their parents meet as they go through adolescence together, we’d particularly urge these bits of advice on parents:
Don’t compare your teenagers to others. Friends once showed us their basement, which their teen-age son had converted into a recreation room. In one corner was a hi-fi set he had built, in another corner a darkroom. That evening we asked our son, “Why don’t you do something like that?” He flung down his fork, got up from the table and said, “Do you feel stuck with me?”