Immaturity is a Sign of Maturity

For the past few years, the membership in one of my weekly groups has remained very consistent. It’s a group of 5th and 6th grade boys, some of whom have been in the group since 1st grade. These boys are a cohesive bunch but sometimes they can get pretty contentious. A former colleague of mine had a funny way of describing groups like this one. “This group reminds me of my family,” he’d say. “Individually, I love them all. But put them together in the same room and they drive me crazy!” So, yeah…these boys can be challenging but there’s a certain charm to them, both individually and collectively, that make them easy to like.

 

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Last year, one of the boys began asking if he could be moved to the high school group that that meets at the same time as his. He felt that this group would be a better match for him because “I’m more mature than the other guys in my group.” The request was a non-starter for a number of reasons, not least of which was that he was 5 years younger than some of the other group’s membership. Plus he really never came across as being more mature than any of the other guys in his own group in the first place. He maintained that his interests were more in line with the high school kids’. In my head, I was thinking “Dude, it takes a lot more than making the switch from Pokemon to Yu-Gi-Oh to be considered mature!” Fortunately, I realized that a snotty response like that was not what the situation called for. But I had some trouble coming up with anything that I really felt would be adequate. I asked myself “What exactly are the traits that go into maturity?” I didn’t come to a good enough answer on my own so I turned, as I often do, to the kids that I work with to help me figure it out.

One of my groups really sunk their teeth into the problem. This is a group of 8th and 9th graders who are some of the smartest kids I know. Some of their ideas were fairly conventional and understandable. Along these lines are the following thoughts about maturity. “Keeping it together in the face of adult subject matter,” and “Non-inappropriateness” (their word – not mine). Accurate maybe but not terribly illuminating. But they kept at it and came up with some other, more insightful, ideas.

They judged, correctly I believe, that a sense of independence, respect for others, politeness, and not laughing at others’ expense were all important elements of being mature. I thought these were impressive, given the fact that these guys do not always rise to the level of their own definitions. They continued with ideas like “Maturity can change based on your surroundings,” “Knowing when to stop,” “Being flexible and able to compromise,” “Responding to the situation you’re in,” and “Being able to delay gratification to work with other people.” I asked them if the fact that I, a 50-something guy who’s supposed to be a responsible adult, could be considered immature because I get paid to chase kids around while making dinosaur noises. They opined, somewhat charitably, that my work behavior did not, in fact, make me immature because I use that silly behavior as a means to help children improve their interaction skills. By being a goofball within the context of running a social skills group, I seem to have met their criteria of “responding to the situation I’m in.” My sister Andrea has always maintained that “Immaturity is a sign of maturity” and I guess my kids are confirming that idea.

I was pretty impressed that these guys were willing to engage in this conversation and that their ideas were so rich. But what really jumped out at me when I heard their ideas was how closely the words they used to describe maturity correspond to the terminology of social/emotional education and social skills work. The ideas my group mentioned – Changing your behavior based upon your surroundings, responding to the situation you’re in, knowing when to stop…those are different ways of wording the idea of reading and responding to social cues. Delaying gratification is another way of referring to impulse control.  Learning to compromise involves cognitive flexibility and an ability to focus on the big picture. I got curious and looked up maturity on Wikipedia. The first paragraph reads “In psychology, maturity is the ability to respond to the environment in an appropriate manner… Maturity also encompasses being aware of the correct time and place to behave and knowing when to act, according to the circumstances and the culture of the society one lives in.”

So maybe the distinction between presenting yourself as immature, on one hand, and displaying social skills delays, on the other, is more an issue of semantics than anything else. Even so, that doesn’t mean the distinction is unimportant. When you describe someone as being immature, whether the description is justified or not,  you’re imposing a value judgement on someone’s character, rather than attributing behavior to cognitive or neurological issues. The same dynamic exists when people use words like “unempathic” to describe people on the autism spectrum rather than using more neutral and accurate terms like perspective taking or theory of mind. When kids hear judgmental words used about themselves repeated ad nauseum, it’s hard for them not to internalize those feelings. This is not to say that there’s no such thing as immature or unempathic people and it’s certainly not to say that using those words is never justified. Social skills delays and immaturity are certainly not mutually exclusive.

In practical terms, the distinction between immaturity and social skills delays becomes less important as children get older. As an adult, people are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. If you’re on the job and make insensitive remarks at every staff meeting, your co-workers won’t care whether or not you have ADHD or anything else. They’ll just see you as obnoxious. Regardless of the cause, it’s important to learn the skills necessary to rein that behavior in or to take responsibility and make amends for it. My sister may be on to something when she says that immaturity is a sign of maturity. But if you don’t develop the skills you need to learn about adjusting your behavior to your surroundings, immaturity just comes across as, well, immaturity.