He was tough – no one could push him around. He wanted everyone to treat him like an adult.

And when he was arrested, that’s how he was treated. They put him in prison – just like an adult.

It makes you stop and think: all the young people who try desperately to grow up fast. Too often their attempts at sophistication and adulthood leave them scarred, battered – old before their time.

Growing up too soon happens all the time. It’s happening to a girl I know. She wears lipstick, eye shadow and some amazing earrings. She also wears skimpy, bikini swimsuits and slinky, suggestive clothing. She is 15 years old.

Then there’s the 16-year-old guy who was invited to a special teenage track meet, but decided not to go because he was too old and too sophisticated to be involved in such a childish activity. I’m 36 and I too was invited. I went. I had fun.

My grandfather’s sign

When I think of growing up too soon, I think of a sign my grandfather had hanging in his living room when I was a teenager. He had made the sign himself, inlaying the carved wooden letters with care.

Its message must have been important to him or else he would not have gone to the obvious effort involved in making the sign. But, at the time, its message made no sense to me.

lt simply read, “We grow too soon old, and too late smart.” I didn’t understand it then, but now I can think of two or three possible meanings for it. When I think of the sad stories I’ve heard of teens growing up too fast, I think it means this: “Don’t grow old too fast. And don’t wait until you are old to smarten up.”

You see them all the time – the teenagers who want to hurry up and quit being a kid. They’re always trying to impress others with how mature they are, how tough they are and how involved they are in huge plans and ideas.

It seems they feel somewhat inferior that they are just teens and want to desperately be on their own and make it in the world. They try to grow up too soon.

Obsession with adulthood

I wish I could believe that this seeming obsession with growing up fast is rare, but I know that is not the case. I know from experience that many, if not most, teens try to dash onto adulthood as soon as they can. But too often the adulthood they seek turns out, to be a counterfeit – one that leaves them scarred and prematurely old.

Different ones try it different ways, of course. Some will start smoking to try to look older and more sophisticated. Others will do drugs. Many want to date at the earliest possible moment. Some – far too many -will dabble with premarital sex in an effort to lurch into adulthood.

Then there are those who wrongly neglect their studies so they can work and buy the latest fashions or buy a car and zoom around town at will like their folks. Some like to dress seductively to look more adult. Others fall into crime. (They think it makes them sophisticated.)

And all of them, it seems, wind up becoming too soon old, and too late smart.

“But,” some may be saying, I don’t understand. I thought you wanted us to mature. You’re right, we do want you to mature, but we don’t want you to grow old before your time. And there is a difference, a big one.

It’s OK to be young

Mature qualities of character, like responsibility, emotional control, good habits, personal grooming, goal setting and social skills are important. We do want you to learn these things. But please don’t grow old before your time.

Don’t, for example, start to neglect good old-fashioned fun by thinking all fun is kid stuff. It seems certain parts of our society disdain fun. The motion picture industry, for example, tends to portray things like sex, wild parties, drugs and crime as exciting things, all the while casting good, clean fun – like camping, fishing, sports or a family outing – as dull, boring.

The result? Teens who want to impress others with their grownup attitudes shun things like family outings so they can just hang out, maybe smoking and looking cool and “adult. “

Also, if you don’t want to become too soon old, don’t develop a turned-off and jaded attitude about life by stifling your emotional zest.

Once again, the motion picture industry often portrays the ideal man as the strong, silent type, afraid of nothing and no one, and about as emotional and warm as a tree stump. Women’s fashion magazines picture the ideal look as aloof, jaded, cool and condescending – bored and boring! Yes, it seems that the simple, outgoing excitement of youth is considered childish compared to such artificial sophistication.

Further, don’t sacrifice your teachability. No one likes a know-it-all, so we must all force ourselves to be willing to listen and be taught. Don’t have the restricted and restricting frame of mind that far too many people, old and young, develop – the attitude that no one can tell me anything I need or want to know.

The price of our toys

Also, don’t be too quick to trade the carefree attitude of youth for the rat race of adulthood. That is, don’t start thinking you will not possibly be happy unless you hurry up and get a job and lots of possessions – like the latest fashions or cars.

A child, it seems, can have fun and find enjoyment with a piece of paper and a pencil, while many adults think they need new cars, a ski boat and a motor home or they will just die with envy.

Of course, sometimes having a job while you are a teen can be a good thing. But how sad it is that some teens get a job they don’t need – often neglecting their studies and social life because of it – simply because they have been bitten by one well-known disease of old age called “keeping up with the Joneses.”

And here is another thing it is vitally important that you avoid : Don’t think the vices that adults have reserved for themselves are what make a person mature.

Gambling, smoking, drinking to excess and watching movies you are supposed to be a certain age to see – these things don’t make you adult or happy or mature. If you get involved in them, they will change you, for the worse. Your mind will become tainted – you’ll be growing old before your time.

Finally, please don’t ever lose your sense of humor. Look at a child’s playground. It is a live with zestful laughter and merrymaking. Yet, somewhere along the path of life, far too many adults have lost their ability to see the lighter side of life. You don’t have to be one of those who slip from the bright and sometimes funny times of youth to a straitjacket of forced somberness.

Yes, your youth is a precious thing, with many good qualities worth clinging to fiercely. That is one reason so many adults would give almost anything to recapture their younger days.

And that is one reason even Jesus Christ commended the many good qualities of youth by telling adults that “unless you … become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18: 3). He meant that we must all recapture the beautiful virtues of youth, like teachability and purity, while, of course, maturing in knowledge, character and wisdom.

What happens to those who grow up too fast? What about those who end up in prison for years? My guess is that when they get out they will try desperately to regain some of the time that was lost to a jail cell. They will look earnestly for ways to turn the clock around.

They will try, but they will fail. You can never go back. You can’t regain your youth once you’ve lost it.

You don’t have to face this situation, though. You still have your youth -remember to guard it and it will serve you well. Remember the lesson from the sign on my grandfather’s wall:

“We grow too soon old, and too late smart.”

Bernard Schrippert ‘Youth’

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