Look, you can't have it both ways, uppity American culture.
Which is it? Either we're forcing kids these days to grow up far too quickly, exposing them to a raft of brutal and complex adult ideas and pressures they are ill equipped to handle, or, well, something possibly far, far worse: They never really grow the hell up at all.
Here's the thing: Endless are the studies and countless are the shrill advocacy groups, politicians and bewildered grandparents lamenting just how harshly kids are raised these days, how we're sexualizing them at younger and younger ages, front-loading them with far too much stress and hardship, and drowning them in the ugly realities of the world before they even hit puberty.
And it's all underscored by a terrifying social networking landscape where every aspect of young life is exposed, scrutinized, mocked and shamed until the poor kid is nothing but a quivering pile of sexual anxieties, drunken party photos on Facebook and text messaging gibberish.
Possible upshot: We're robbing our children of any vestiges of true innocence, never giving them a shot at stability or happiness before they're stamped with a Disney branding iron and force fed to the demons of K Street, violent videogames, porn, prescription meds and oral sex on the school bus field trip. Perilous!
Either that, or we're coddling them to death, letting them delay "real life" for years and sometimes forever by allowing to cruise from spoiled, overprotected child to mealy pseudo-adulthood with the help of overpampering Boomer parents who give them too much money and attention and not enough boundaries or backbone-building responsibility.
And why? Because gosh golly, life is hard and rent is expensive, and who needs that when your parents let you move back home after college and live there well into your 30s, so you never have to fend for yourself, can't cook and don't know how to drive a car because you spent so much damn time on Facebook and MySpace that you never grew a real personality?
Possible upshot #2: A whole generation stuck in eternal, insufferable adolescence, emotionally stunted and immature, never fully desiring (or requiring) to settle down, "get serious," get a life. Marriage? Kids? A career? Maybe someday. Maybe when I'm, you know, 40.
So, which is it? Are we eternally adolescent or prematurely old? Reluctant to grow the hell up, or taking on way too much, far too quickly? Can it be both? I think it might be both.
It's a question that comes to mind as I read the analysis over at the NYT of yet another wayward American trend, the much-discussed phenom/social shift of putting off until later -- often much, much later -- what previous generations barely put off much past high school graduation. Namely: Marriage, career, kids, buying a home, crushing debt, arguments over who gets the dog in the divorce.
AKA: real life. AKA: adulthood. AKA: the way it's always been done. Until now.