When we know what we don’t know

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, June 7, 2016 10:42 PM

When Justin was in high school, he suffered from what many teenagers suffer from. A little something I call know-it-all-itis. This is all part of the “dog, my parents are the stupidest people on the planet!” syndrome, a way of thinking that makes perfect sense when you don’t have much of a brain. A teen is in the process of becoming an adult. They are filled with fight, with the body telling them they’re old enough to act like an adult and their brains telling them they know exactly what do to and how to do it. Even though their bodies and their brains are wrong. I suffered from this syndrome myself. It’s all part of the reason that parents and teens fight, and why there’s so much animosity between the two sides. Teens are smart and parents aren’t, ergo the teens must flee and the parents must open the door willingly. 

My theory on teens dovetails nicely with this. Kids are wonderful when they’re young and cuddly. You can’t imagine living your life without them. By the time they’re halfway through their high school career, and your conversations consist of grunts and slamming doors, you start to think that them going away to college might not be such a bad idea after all. When they finally do go away, you’re both ok with it, even if you also experience pangs of loss. 

I remember taking Justin to the University of Arizona and him summarily dismissing us outside of his dorm after we had taken him to dinner. “I’m good from here,” he said. I nodded, understanding. Kevin was more sentimental. The loss didn’t hit me until we got back to Oak Park and I went into his room. It was so empty and quiet, devoid of personality. Devoid of him. 

We got over it, largely because Kevin and I have such a good relationship, and because I knew that eventually Justin would no longer think we were the dumbest people on the planet and we’d all be back to having more fun than angst. It usually happens somewhere around the second year of college. After being away for a year, it suddenly becomes real. You have to get yourself up in the morning and home in the evening. You have to do your own laundry and remind yourself to change the sheets on your bed. If there is no orange juice in the fridge, it’s because you didn’t buy it. You have to learn to budget your money because there isn’t a constant and easy “bank” known as the Bank of Parental Units from which to make a withdrawal whenever you need. It’s humbling. 

There’s also that little matter of maturity. As teens age out of the teenage years and into their 20s, their brains start to gel. It’s well known that the young adult brain doesn’t become fully formed until about 25. That’s when reasoned, rational thinking is truly on display. Justin is now 25 but his brain has been on the verge of forming more solidly (if a brain can be considered solid) since he was about 20. He started truly wanting our advice on things and we gave it only when asked. We never told him what to do; only provided guidance and perhaps asked some questions that he might not have considered. As he’s gotten older, he has come to realize and even appreciate that we’re not nearly as stupid as he thought. It’s a rite of passage. 

He’s very smart, sometimes scarily so. People who are that intelligent often fall into the trap of being know it alls. It’s easy to do and even understandable. He’s not like that and I’m glad. Over the last couple of weeks since he’s been home, more than once he has literally said “I didn’t know that.” It can be humbling to not know something and to be able to find it out, to absorb it, and to now know it. It can also be exhilarating.

We start to know that we don’t know everything when we hit 20. By the time we get to be 50, we’re absorbing our lack of knowledge at a faster clip than ever before. We’re OK with not knowing. We know what we don’t know, we know that we don’t know, and we are smarter because of it. I’m celebrating my lack of knowledge tonight and every day. It makes me a better person.    

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