A Social Faux Pas

I killed the conversation at a neighborhood playdate the other day. One woman started talking about what a big man-child her husband was–never cleans up, can’t make dinner, etc. Another started in on how her house becomes a disaster if she goes out for a few hours, and she has to make sure the meals are lined up because he doesn’t really take care of the kids. I said “Huh. Well, my husband would make a good housewife if he stayed home with the kids…he’s really good at doing lots of things.” Awkward lull. “But it’s a moot point, because I don’t have the skills to do his job…he’s just good at things.”

“That’s nice,” said one of my neighbors. There was silence for a bit. Oops.

This “My husband is soooo incompetent” theme appears often when the neighborhood moms are sitting around together. I haven’t spoken up before because 1) I want my kids to be invited to playdates; 2) it feels a little obscene to boast about my husband’s superiority when everyone else is kvetching about their husbands; 3) these conversations usually aren’t long enough to be really bothersome, and 4) I generally like these women and don’t want to make them uncomfortable; I am either a guest or a host, after all, with the obligations of a guest or host. In this case, I was in another woman’s home, sipping her sparkling water. 

But I was a little tired of hearing the same spiel from women who one and all live in lovely houses and get to buy lots of things and go out to eat, and then spend time trashing the men who were generally out working while we sat around and chatted. And I was glad I’d spoken up, for the second mother eventually said, “You know, I think it is really stressful for [her husband] to have the pressure of being the provider for our family. I mean, he doesn’t talk about it, but he really feels the weight of it, that if something goes wrong at work then it’s a major thing for our family.” I have heard her express respectful appreciation for her husband at other times, and I know that she cheerfully works at home doing a superb job housekeeping, getting the yardwork done, and bringing in extra income by running an in-home daycare. It was rather surprising to hear her join in the complaining, and she quickly stopped when called out on it.

Women who get together enjoy sharing commonalities of experience. Some of this sharing takes the form of complaining–about the crazy neighbors who like to stick their noses into everyone’s business, about the ridiculous school schedule, about demanding little children not allowing Mommy a moment’s piece. We bond over complaining.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The women at my church group may complain about, say, a hard week with sick children or other difficult circumstances, but they don’t direct their complaints toward their family, and especially not toward their husbands. What I don’t know how to do is to change the culture in my neighborhood. I don’t really want to be a killjoy, nor do I want to pose as superior to the other neighborhood women–God knows I have many faults. I don’t want to tear down my neighbors–male or female. They’re nice folks, and they provide good homes for their children and raise them well and carefully. 

Probably a better way to have redirected the conversation would have been to say something complimentary about the other men. “Well, I love what ‘Bob’ has done with your landscaping,” or “‘Rich’ is so good with the kids.” In this way I would have been signaling that I’d rather hear nice things about them, and wouldn’t have appeared to be bragging.

Well, we’ll see what happens at the next playdate–if I’m invited, that is.

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Everybody’s a Critic

I have concluded that a critical scholar of literature is someone who takes a juicy, delicious work of literature, crams it into the grinder of her own prejudices, and squeezes out indigestible and unrecognizable rolls of sausage flavored with dull jargon and the filler of other scholars’ work. (I was an English major in college.) I don’t read or watch material and then crank out essays on feminist post-structuralist social interactionism of what I consume, but I have become a critic, and a very narrow-minded, censorial one at that; think Hays board at their most enthusiastic suppression of boobs, blood, and bad language.

This is, of course, the timeworn transformation of a childless person into a parent who must decide what to let his child watch or read. We’re responsible for the small people forming in our household, and as I have already explained I am a stout supporter of thoroughly indoctrinating little children before they’re old enough to make up their own minds; something’s going to go into those brains, so it’d better be stuff I approve of while I have the power to act as Media Gatekeeper.

But perhaps “approve of” isn’t precisely the right phrase; “tolerate” might be better. My daughter just picked a free book from the library, and I allowed her to select Barbie: I Can Be a Cheerleader even though I think it’s insipid drivel and a waste of pulp, ink, and shelf space. For though I cheerfully admit that her father and I are the dictators of our household, we try to be intelligent dictators, and intelligent dictators don’t manage every aspect of their subjects’ lives. We all know people whose parents’ overzealous strictness contributed to them making stupid, harmful decisions once old enough to escape their home.

Not everything is tolerable. I will not allow my children to read I Am Jazz, or Heather Has Two Mommies, or nonchristian children’s religious books. I will limit material that promotes “You go grrrrl” ideas, as well as books in which boys (especially fathers) are depicted as buffoons needing to be led by wise, strong females. I will not permit books or shows in which the main characters are snarky, disrespectful children. But up to a certain point, de gustibus non est disputandum, and my children are not me. I certainly read and enjoyed plenty of crap as a child, and given that my favorite reading nowadays is usually mystery or fantasy I’m in no position to insist upon only Good Literature. (For an excellent rebuttal, however, see this post.)

But Good Literature there must be, and good television as well. It is useless to forbid that which is bad without providing that which is good, for forming positive ideas is a much better defense against negative ideas than forever saying “no.” And so I am a literary critic, and a teacher, and a librarian choosing which books to stock, and media curator putting on “What’s Opera Doc” (which I bitterly regretted for several days afterward, when the boys would chant “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit” in unison) while wondering how harmful Woody Woodpecker might be. Picking good things to read or watch isn’t merely a matter of reinforcing good morals, but also good storytelling; good characterization; interesting plots and beautiful word arrangements.

The first Good Books I was introduced to were those my parents read to me–Treasure Island, the Baum Oz books, Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne; P.D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss picture books, nursery rhymes and illustrated Longfellow verse, and a million other stories and poems. It is a delight to be able to share these treats with my children, and as I do my new critical work tends to be a series of short, simple questions: Would you like to read a book about some children who go through a magic wardrobe? What did you think of this story? Which character did you like the best? Did you agree with the author when he said this? What do you think will happen next? Really? I am not sure I agree; can you tell me why you think so?

Truthfully, I think it’s some of the most useful criticism I’ve done, and I’d trade just about any essay I wrote on Chaucer or Pope for my discussions with my children. But then I think: That is unfair. For I come to the task of reading and selecting things for my children with my own experiences behind me, and taste formed in part by the teachers who gave me books to read and then asked me to consider them. As negatively as I characterized the work of criticism at the beginning of my post, amid all the pretentious words and dull hunts for symbols my teachers were asking me to pay good books the respect they deserve by causing me to dwell upon them, and to ask me why they were good. This is worthy, and I am only now beginning to appreciate why.

 

Birthday Blues (My Favorite Color)

My mother always gets depressed around her birthday. This seems to be a common adult reaction, and after a certain point our birthday may serve to remind us that we have increasing frailty, infirmity, and death to look forward to. Counting off another year might also remind us of how much we haven’t done, or that we’re not where we’ve hoped to be.

Children, however, love birthdays. Presents! Cake! Balloons! And they’re a WHOLE YEAR OLDER! They can expect new capabilities and freedoms with each birthday; getting older means increased strength and possibility, not diminishment. A child who doesn’t look forward to his birthday is a sad creature indeed.

As an adult, I have always enjoyed my birthday; it still feels like an achievement to have completed another year and be about to embark on a new one, even though I don’t really accomplish anything merely by existing. On the whole, however, I quite like existing, and it’s nice to remember that I’ve gotten to do so for 37 years as of today. I still get presents, visits and calls from relatives, and a dinner out, and I made myself a nice cake with lots of almonds but no frosting, just the way I like. My daughter made me a lovely paper crown with 37 hand-drawn candles. I am a queen for today, and being the sort of queen that’s got to marinate the chicken, wipe down the countertops, and clean up the family room is actually very pleasant.

I’ll never be a child again, with a child’s wholehearted excitement at the promise of Goodies and Parties to Come. It’s a delight to witness, and makes my children’s birthdays more fun than my own; but children manage to add a special savor to my birthday when they excitedly tape Post-It notes to the walls as “decorations” and try to invite the neighbors over.

Circumstantial happiness is fragile. I have no guarantee of happiness tomorrow, let alone on my next birthday. But for now, I am content and grateful for the many good things in my life, and for the family that loves me–especially on the day I mark the passing of another year.

Thank You, Fathers

My father deserves my love, respect, and gratitude for coming together with my mother; for working hard to give us material needs (and extra); for loving my mother and his children and creating a happy home. I wish I could call him up and tell him how much he means to me this Father’s Day. His untimely death showed us just how irreplaceable he was.

My husband deserves my love, respect, and gratitude for coming together with me; for working hard to give us material needs (and extra); for loving me and our children and creating a happy home. He made me a mother, and that was a great gift; he continues to love us, care for us, and protect us. I am lucky to be able to tell him how much he means to me, and how irreplaceable he is.

My friend’s father stepped in after my own father passed away and was a second father to me. To his own family, he worked hard, taught his children the way they should go, and gave them a safe, loving, stable place to grow up.

In the churches I’ve attended, the places I’ve worked, the neighborhoods I’ve lived in I’ve seen fathers putting in long hours to make sure their families were provided for; playing with their children and being present for them; disciplining them to help them grow up knowing right from wrong; taking them for walks, reading them books, and giving them a healthy foundation of love.

Fathers are at work making the world a better place for their kids. Some perform difficult or dangerous jobs to bring home a paycheck for their family, and in so doing fill our society’s needs for those difficult or dangerous jobs.

Fathers aren’t superheroes. They all make mistakes, and they don’t conform to some industry standard for what fathers are supposed to do. But a family without a father suffers greatly,* and this suffering shows what ordinary, normal fathers are: The builders of their children’s worlds–and ultimately of ours.

Thank you, fathers.

Related:

Happy Father’s Day (2018)

Happy Father’s Day (2017)

My Children Will Know Their Grandfather

*H/t Earl

 

Bags and Babies

Several months ago, I prepared to go out without my kids (a rare occurrence). My two oldest watched me get ready. “What’s that?” asked my son.

“Can I have that?” asked my daughter.

“That” was a leather purse I bought several years ago while on a business trip to Vancouver. It hadn’t made much of an appearance in the last 5 years. I’d generally favored a backpack-style diaper bag stuffed with diapering materials, books, crayons, pencils, paper, water bottles, granola bars, small toys, extra clothes, hand sanitizer, tissues, and random flotsam. 

“No, you can’t have it; I need it tonight,” I said, putting my things into it and slipping on my shoes.

“It’s pretty,” said my daughter.

I thought of this incident yesterday when I hung my purse up and decided not to take out my keys, wallet, and phone because I anticipated using it the next day. The fully-loaded diaper bag is still present, but more and more I find myself leaving it in the car and taking only my purse into the library, school, doctor’s office, and grocery store. My youngest child is 2, and his snack needs and bowel movements are no longer frequent and unpredictable. He doesn’t usually trash his outfit, and he can even use a drinking fountain, making it a matter of less urgency to bring water bottles or sippy cups on errands. 

Every parent knows there are a million milestones in a child’s life–those marked by the calendar, such as birthdays and pediatrician visits; physical growth; accomplishments, such as the child’s first steps; disasters, such as the first time the child figures out how to unscrew the top to a medicine bottle. (Or should we count that as an accomplishment?) But a child’s progress is also marked on his parent, and not just in wrinkles or gray hairs. There are a thousand things that serve as signs you are a parent of a child of a certain age. Things like what kind of bag a mother takes down when she’s preparing to go out.

Perhaps we’ll be blessed with another little one, and I’ll sigh for my comparatively carefree days toting around a purse instead of a Child Survival Pack; until then, I’m glad not to be encumbered with enough baggage to see me to the top of Everest. But my baby’s no longer a baby, and it makes me a little sad to have one more reminder that all my kids are growing and will be out of my arms before I can blink my eyes.

Of Course I’m “That Parent”–or Could Be

Ah, how easy it is to make fun of helicopter parents who hover about their children, allowing no independence; how tempting to mock snowplow or lawnmower parents, who smooth away every obstacle from their children and so prevent them from learning how to negotiate difficulties on their own. How exasperating are parents who give into tantrums or bend over backwards to keep their children happy all the time; how foolish are parents who feed their children too much sugar, or do not enforce consistent discipline, or lay up trouble for themselves in a thousand ways by making the present easier at the cost of future dependence.

Other parents’ failings in this area are plain to see, and plainest of all before you’ve got kids of your own. For when you’ve got these small, dependent people whom you’ve loved and tended, what you experience most strongly are the present feelings of your child. Who doesn’t want to put a smile on his kid’s face rather than tears or a frown? Who wants to see his child disconsolate from some failure or hurt?

But this isn’t just some weakness caused by the cuteness and closeness of your children. It’s the correct starting position, especially for those who have gestated their children before birth. A child growing inside its mother is totally, completely dependent. It can take no voluntary action to promote its health and happiness–except sucking, which it’s quite good at doing from an early gestational age. Unless something goes drastically wrong, it will be continuously so close to its mother that the two of them are physically connected. Its health is ENTIRELY dependent on the health of its mother–what she eats and drinks, how she sleeps, what she does directly affects the baby, and she cannot avoid this obligation unless she has the baby killed or removed from her. There is no parent so helicoptery as a pregnant woman, and this is how it should be.

A newborn is not quite as dependent on its mother as a fetus, but it is very nearly so–it cannot obtain food for itself, or clean itself, or protect itself from the elements. It needs a great deal of human contact to thrive, and at this stage its “wants” are needs. As the child grows older, it becomes more independent, is able to do things for itself and begin to make choices, but we as parents are used to the child’s earlier stages. We don’t allow our 2-year-olds to cross a street by themselves, so it can take a long time before it dawns on us that our child is no longer 2, but 12, and should really know how to look both ways and cross safely.

The child, of course, is straining for independence as soon as ever it’s able, and a 3-year-old might have quite unjustified confidence in her ability to cross a street without incident. Children want to do all that they’re capable of, even when they haven’t the necessary judgment to do something safely and properly, and it is up to their parents to provide appropriate boundaries and support.

But I hope this explanation makes it a little more apparent how easy it can be for a mother or father to smother a child, or not to give the child responsibilities commensurate with its age and abilities. No one wants to wind up as “that” mother who accompanies her adult son to job interviews, or does her collegiate daughter’s laundry every weekend, or screams at her son’s Government teacher because her son didn’t turn in his paper on time and was marked down for it. Parents who rush to remove every obstacle from their children’s path really are stunting them, but these parents aren’t necessarily crazy idiots. I see in myself the potential for turning into them, and I must constantly stop myself from acting merely on my feelings–as natural and understandable as they may be.

 

A Little (Statistical) Learning Is a Useful Thing

My high school provided a pretty typical algebra-geometry-trigonometry-calculus math track for college-bound students. Algebra I and geometry are useful no matter what path you follow in life, but I would make trig, Algebra II, and calculus optional and force everyone to take a course in basic probability and statistics.

Probability and statistics can be very complex, but the level of understanding all high schoolers should attain is pretty simple. We all go over mean, median, and mode in junior high, but a refresher would be helpful, as well as discussing simple concepts like the Gambler’s Fallacy. Different ways of determining risk should be explained–odds ratios, hazard ratios, relative risk, absolute risk–and perhaps some medical emphasis, such as number needed to treat/harm would be useful. A description of the P value, and what it means and does NOT mean, is essential.

Maybe your high school covered these topics; if so, great! Mine didn’t, and most of the people I know who aren’t involved with scientific research (or sports) didn’t get a very good grounding in statistics. But they should, and they should especially if they have a kid.

This is because we are bombarded with statements of “fact” that turn out to be bastardized misunderstandings of fairly nuanced articles. “Wine may literally be the blood of life, according to a new French study that shows wine appears to lower the health risks associated with high blood pressure” reads one WebMD article. To its credit, the WebMD article points out that the study was in part funded by parties that might have in interest in promoting wine as healthy for you, and also mentions that the participants are middle-aged French men–meaning it might be unclear how the results generalize to other populations.

However, we have to go to the article to learn a few things. First of all, the authors excluded men at high risk of coronary artery disease in order to remove bias from those nondrinkers who stopped drinking because of bad health. But men may have developed heart disease from drinking in youth, so excluding these men might make the drinkers appear healthier as a group than they are. I note that they adjusted their results for several important variables that affect heart health: smoking status, education, body mass index (BMI), physical activity, and serum cholesterol.

I am not competent to judge their statistical methods. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the results reported in the abstract reported relative risk, rather than absolute risk. So the moderate drinkers had between 23% and 37% less chance of dying than the abstainers! Break out the vino! However, what they don’t show is how many fewer people died in each group. These numbers are presented in the baseline table (Table 2); it looks as though 416 (10.84%) abstainers died, 2,249 (10.11%) wine drinkers died, and 1,438 (13.67%) drinkers of alcohol other than wine died. This is somewhat less impressive sounding. Of course, this doesn’t include all the statistical adjustments, but that 23-37% reduction isn’t telling the whole story, either. A reduction of risk might be statistically significant but clinically meaningless if not too many adverse events happen in the first place–a treatment that lowers a brain cancer risk from 1 in 1,000,000 to 1 in 1,500,000 is hardly worth taking.

Basic statistical knowledge might help parents who are undecided on, say, the subject of circumcising their sons. I realize that some people have extremely pronounced views on the subject, but for those who do not (such as my husband and I), a balanced consideration of risks and benefits can help make that decision when the hospital staff pops the question.*

It’s not just circumcision, either. Just how risky is bed-sharing, or letting baby sleep in a swing? What are the actual risks of vaccinating, or not? I realize that what I am describing is not JUST a mastery of statistics, but an overall ability to evaluate expert opinion and scientific evidence, even if only in a very cursory way; I also realize that parenting decisions are made based a great deal on one’s own feelings, experience, and culture, rather than on a by-the-numbers basis. But it helps to know the facts of each issue, and facts include statistics. And at least a passing familiarity with the laws of probability might make it less likely for some optimistic parent to forego those weekly lottery tickets, and stick that money in a 529 savings plan instead.

 

*No, I am not telling you what we decided to do about our sons’ genitals.

 

My Husband Gives His FedEx Package Its Freedom

Dear FedEx Package [number],

You are probably expecting another letter inquiring about your whereabouts and begging you to come back. You were so close to me, even making it to the next town over, but then I was too needy and you fled to Georgia. Your friends at FedEx no longer return my calls and I don’t think even they know where you are anymore. I’ve decided to let you go so you can pursue your own dreams.

But I’ve learned some things since I met you. At first you desired me for my popularity with other packages and rushed quickly to me. But when I showed you too much affection and loyalty, you became bored and chose what you felt was a more glamorous lifestyle — traveling from city to city, letting random men shove you in the back of their truck and bang you around.

Why should I desire a package that will only settle for me after it is done having fun? If you keep this up, no man will want you and you will find yourself discarded and alone, visited only by cats who will pee on you and paw at the remains of your tattered box. You were created for a purpose, and this was not it. You will find no lasting pleasure in it. I know what I’m telling you is making you angry, but it is the truth. Or did you really believe what those other men told you? They would have told you anything to get you banging in their truck! Then immediately they forgot about you and moved on to the next one. Did you not notice or care how roughly they treated you? Why is that the behavior that you long for? You think you are doing fine because you have been embraced by so many men. But when you are finally ready to settle down, none of those men will want you. They will have moved on to newer, less worn packages and you will despise the one who could do no better than you.

I’ve found another* who I am very happy with and doesn’t play any of your games. I guess you weren’t that special after all. So enjoy your steaks in Texas. Have fun at the amusement parks in Ohio. Why you went to West Virgina, I’ll never know. I don’t get updates on your whereabouts anymore, but I guess that I don’t need that though. Now you’re just some package that I used to know.

Update: FedEx regretfully expressed much regret about the regrettable inconvenience my husband may have experienced, regrettably, but cannot find the package and has stopped trying to locate it. My husband was refunded by the seller.

 

*Another package of fencing bought in-store.

No Need For Soccer or Candyland

It’s important for children to get plenty of exercise and screen-free time. Very young children cannot participate in organized sports or board games, but fortunately are very good at the following universally popular pastimes:

5. Identify This Thing

This game is played with both child and adult participants. “Look, Mommy! See what I found?” Will it be a long-lost toy? A rock? A brown squishy substance that you’re desperately hoping is chocolate?

4. Freak Out Mommy (or Daddy)

Beginners in this sport draw on the wall, climb onto precarious positions, break expensive items, or other obvious moves. More advanced players master the art of subtlety and induce massive amounts of panic by strategically remaining quiet at unexpected moments. Bonus points for hiding oneself in some corner of the house and then having a plausible explanation for one’s absence. “I was just sorting out my toys in this closet; I didn’t hear you!”

3. “But You Said…”

Children with any level of verbal competency hone their critical thinking and rhetorical skills with this word-play game. Remember when you mumbled “Mmhmm” to their request for a cookie? This means that you signed an ironclad contract to give them said cookie, right now, and if you don’t you’re going back on your promise. You don’t want to be the kind of person who breaks promises, do you?

Also, it will amaze you to find how poorly you’ve delivered apparently simple instructions. “Please come in the house now” is interpreted to mean “Pretty soon we’ll have to come in the house, once I’ve swung a few more times, used the slide, and played tag with the neighbors.”

Classic techniques include repetition, waiting until the parent is absorbed in something else, selective deafness, and saying “Thank you” preemptively after delivering a request that the child thinks you may not grant. Judicious use of “I love you, Mommy” can help, but is not to be overused. Using a wounded tone of voice can be very effective, but great care must be taken not to veer into whining, which results in an instant penalty.

2. Chase

One sibling chases another, then is chased by the other, and round and round they go. Points are awarded for how well the tread of a 20- or 30-lb child resembles the stampede of a buffalo herd; extra points for knocking something down. The finish line is reached when at least one child bangs into something and hurts himself.

1. Sibling Is Being Mean to Me!

The game of games, into which all other games devolve. Endless variations are possible–“Brother hit me!” “Sister said she hates me!” “Brother took my toy!” “Sister’s not letting me through!” Leave children harmoniously drawing with sidewalk chalk, and a few minutes later someone will insist that their siblings are candidates for the international war crimes tribunal.

What other favorite children’s games have I missed?

The Eighth Commandment is Not Complicated

A couple of days ago, I participated in a comment thread about a 4-year-old who had taken some toys meant for underprivileged kids. The child’s parent (sex unclear) had stored the toys but not locked them up; the child had repeatedly pilfered toys from the stash, in spite of being on the receiving end of long, earnest lectures about honesty, trust, and helping the less fortunate. The toys, incidentally, were windup plastic character toys, which were not the kind of toys the parent bought for his or her own kid.

All of the commenters agreed that the parent was dumb not to lock away the toys after the first incident (or before).

Many of the commenters agreed that for the kid’s next birthday or Christmas, maybe the parent should get him one or two of these plastic pieces of junk, instead of more of whatever high-quality wooden educational toys the child already had.

So far, so good. But then the commenters veered off into lunacy. To paraphrase: “At four years old, a child doesn’t have any conception of ‘mine’ and ‘not mine,’ especially for toys that have been brought into her house. It’s unfair to expect her to understand that she can’t play with them.” A few even suggested that the parent go out right then and buy the child a toy, or let her keep one of the charity’s toys and buy a new one for the charity, and they were not roundly lambasted by anyone (except me, because I’m a meanie who doesn’t want to reward children for bad behavior).

I was astonished at how many of the commenters agreed that the 4-year-old wasn’t really capable of stealing because of her age. It is one thing to say that impulse control in 4-year-olds is poor–that’s quite true, hence the inadvisability of leaving a bunch of toys in front of said 4-year-old. But four is plenty old enough to understand “This is not yours; do not touch it; do not play with it.” You do not need to deliver speeches about charity and helping the poor to get this very simple point across. A 4-year-old may certainly still disobey, and it doesn’t mean that she’s a sociopath, but where in the world do people get the idea that she just isn’t able to grasp the idea that she doesn’t get to handle everything?

Now, people have smaller families nowadays, and it is quite possible that children without siblings might have a harder time refraining from taking others’ toys. This doesn’t seem very plausible, though, because at the very least the parent will have told a 4-year-old “This is Mommy’s, don’t touch” throughout her childhood. Also, many children go to daycare, and I presume that a competent caregiver would help children learn to share toys and respect personal possessions.

Ultimately, I think we’re seeing another example of the worldview in which children are essentially amoral beings and can be presumed to have no responsibility for their actions and speech. Obviously, a very young child does NOT have the same degree of responsibility for something like stealing that, say, a twenty-something does, but it is a parent’s job to help children develop that agency. It is right for us to set our children up to succeed, and not wave a bag of enticing but forbidden toys at them; but it is disappointing to see so many adults apparently rejecting the idea of having any moral expectations at all for their young children. Four-year-olds are smarter than that, but if their parents don’t discipline them the resulting 24-year-olds might not be.