“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” - Attributed (probably spuriously) to Mark Twain
The usual explanation for this is that teenagers are too foolish to understand the advice of their elders. But there’s another obvious explanation: their parents accumulate life experience that makes them wiser over those seven years.
Not all experience is created equal, and the rearing of a child all the way to adulthood is likely a substantial source of new wisdom and experience that are difficult to acquire in other ways beforehand.
When I was a child, I felt like my grandfather had a lot more perspective to offer than my father had. Some of this might just have been a different context for our interactions; most of my interactions with my dad were about day-to-day stuff. But some of this might have been that my grandfather actually had more experience.
As I talk with my dad now, it seems more and more clear that he has some sorts of wisdom and perspective I wasn’t aware of earlier. For instance, it seems like he’s more aware than before that when you have a child, you’re not buying into some set lifestyle, but instead you’re buying a chance at a highly uncertain set of outcomes. This makes me more relaxed about talking with him, because it feels more like if I do things he doesn’t agree with, he knew this was part of the deal in advance.
My mom has also talked about acquiring wisdom that she didn’t have before, in ways that have made conversations with her go better. For instance, I think we’ve both recently learned a lot about setting boundaries.
If this hypothesis is true, then the natural thing to do is to tell kids, not to listen to their parents more, but to listen to people of their grandparents’ generation more, to the extent that they’re available. It also seems like I should prioritize making more friends who are at least a few decades older than I am.
To the extent that this hypothesis is true, we should expect the last child in a long series to report this effect less than firstborns. So, my questions for you are:
- How many years between your parents’ firstborn and your birth? (0 if you were a firstborn.)
- How true does Twain’s observation seem for you, that parents seem to get wiser over time?