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The Difference Between Adults and Grown-ups

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You can cobble together a solid 12 minutes of unconquerable joy a day staying home with a toddler. It's just the other 14 or 15 hours that strip your nerves and immolate your spirit -- Sam Lipsyte, The Republic of Empathy.

That line from Lipsyte's story, published in the New Yorker last month, really resonated with me, mostly because sometimes it seems like that's the joy:pain ratio of parenting throughout these first seven years of parenthood I've experienced. It's not that bad, not all the time, but any parent will tell you, that's the way it can feel.

Still, we have children, and we have to raise them, and the extent to which we are able to do that well is probably the biggest contribution most of us will ever make to the future strength of our communities and our democracy. So, with that in mind, with Father's Day behind us, and with summer bringing most of our kids back into the home life in a less structured way than the school year (for those of us without a year-round school), it seems a good time to connect to some solid parenting advice. Don't worry, I'm not dispensing any.

Dr. Lisa Damour is Director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and in a recent talk for TEDxCLE, she breaks down the difference between adults and grown-ups. As a child clinical psychologist who spends most of her clinical hours talking to teenagers, Damour sees this difference in terms of risk assessment, or how individuals decide what chances to take.

"People who are merely adults, who haven't really grown up, assess risk in terms of the chances of getting caught engaging in risky behavior," she says. "In contrast, people who are really grown up assess risk... in terms of the actual consequences of the behavior they're considering."

The adult sees a 25 m.p.h. speed limit sign and wonders if the cops are around. The grown-up sees the same speed limit sign and slows down, knowing that there's probably a reason --children playing, perhaps, or a curve ahead. The trick to parenting is in helping young people become grown-ups, capable of imagining consequences, rather than adults who have merely aged into adulthood. But how do you do that?

Damour is a friend of mine, and so part of the joy I get in watching this is a sense of pride about my good friend sharing her expertise. But what I love about this is her vision of a parenting style that flies in the face of most of our knee-jerk parenting responses. As Damour says, "parents are just people who have had kids." There's no handbook all parents are issued, no course requirements, no prerequisites. So that means we often parent based on impulses -- don't do that because I said so and if you do you'll lose (insert privilege here). Damour says we can have conversations with our kids about the real world consequences, asking them to imagine the dangers of the behavior they're considering. Of course, many parents already know this and know how to do this, but to others, this is a complete revelation.

So you might already be a phenomenal parent, someone who already knows how to have these kind of conversations with your kids. If so, watching this will help you understand what you're doing right already. But if you're like me and feel like parenting is humanity's greatest act of mass improvisation, you'll definitely get something out of this.