While a teen's mature self is away, baby self will surely play

January 05, 2003|By Susan Reimer

Psychologist Anthony Wolf, the one man standing between frustrated adults, their self-absorbed teens and domestic violence, has a theory he uses to explain why our children can be so useless at home but, apparently, so delightful around teachers and their friends' parents.

Wolf, author of The Secret of Parenting, says children of any age have two sides to their personalities: the "mature self" and, regrettably, the "baby self."

After being the "mature self" all day at school or around other adults, our children crash through the front door of their own homes and, as fast as they dump their backpacks, become the "baby self."

The baby self is seeking refuge from the strain of being the mature self, and all the baby self wants is to be comforted and nurtured. The baby self doesn't want conflict, stress or any demands made on him.

Basically, the baby self wants to eat junk food and watch cartoons or lock himself in his room and turn the music up loud or go online and instant message everyone she just left at school.

The baby self doesn't want to hang up his coat, let alone do chores or homework. And certainly, the baby self doesn't want to deal with a nagging parent.

Wolf does not put an age limit on this mature-self / baby-self duality. In fact, he says, it endures into adulthood, which is why the dinner hour is referred to as the "witching hour" in most homes.

The parents also return home from a tough day of being the mature self, and all they want to do, too, is be the baby self -- nurtured and comforted and facing no demands.

With all these baby selves in the same room there is bound to be conflict.

Which leads me to the point of this column. My son came home from his first semester of college, and it was the baby self, not the mature self, who dropped his luggage inside the front door.

He was seeking refuge from the months-long strain of being the mature self. All he wanted was to be comforted, nurtured and to eat junk food in front of the television set.

He wanted to sleep late, stay out later and not answer any questions, such as, "where are you going?" and "what time will you be back?"

The baby self left the milk out on the counter with the lid off, the towels and the sports section on the bathroom floor and dirty clothes and dirty dishes everywhere.

As if this were not bad enough, the baby self also put the car in a ditch, lost his wallet, which contained my credit card, caused his sister's CD collection to be stolen and, though he still denies it, accidentally set my Day Runner -- the repository of all my important information -- on fire.

He also disconnected me from the Internet, but that was on purpose.

My husband was baffled and despairing until I explained to him Wolf's theory of the baby self and the mature self, and then he felt better.

"He was always this much work," I assured him. "We just forgot while he was gone."

My son has returned to college, and I hope for the sake of that institution that it was the mature self who picked up his bags and went out the door. And I hope he knows that his baby self is welcome here whenever he wishes to return.

After he left, I found his father lovingly scraping the tortilla chips out of the carpet in front of the television.

"I miss him already," he said.

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