I've been thinking lately about Mary Hartman's husband's hat. You might remember Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the TV show that debuted in the late '70s. This Norman Lear satire of a soap opera showcased the strange citizens of the mythical town of Ferndale. Mary's husband, Tom, was a comparatively normal specimen, though he was naïve and boyish, hardly man enough to head a family. The audience could tell this as soon as he appeared on screen because he wore a baseball cap.Armchair anthropologists will note that the cultural meaning of a baseball cap has shifted in 20 years: it used to be the equivalent, for an adult, of a flashing sign reading I'm not serious. Today it is ubiquitous. The phenomenon of "Casual Friday Creep" is elbowing business attire out of the rest of the week and "casual" is slipping from khakis-and-loafers to jeans-and-sandals. Many grownups dress like they're headed to a play date.A corresponding shift is happening at the other end. Grammar-school girls used to wear puffed sleeves and a sash in the back. Now they wear skirts and knit tops, miniature versions of their moms' outfits.This is hardly the most pressing moral issue of our day. But the loss of separate clothing codes for children and adults is interesting, because it reveals the general loss of markers for adulthood. It used to be replacing your baseball cap with a Homburg told the world you had achieved grownup status. Now the boundary line for adulthood is less distinct.Some grownups are having trouble figuring out how to grow up, and there are reasons they might not want to. A century ago, adulthood was a proud achievement. Childhood was a time of preparation for adult life, and children were mainstreamed into that life as much as feasible. Parents diligently taught the skills and values necessary for effective adulthood, since that was where their children were going to spend most of their years. As children's abilities grew, adults guided them into increasing responsibility. Graduation into adulthood, and out of "short pants," was an honor.But in the past half-century, a sentimental view emerged that childhood should be a time without responsibilities--a precious season of sheer fun that precedes the gloomy adult world of bosses, bills, and worry. Adulthood seemed less an honor and childhood became something to cling to. In the mid-'50s Peter Pan sang, "I won't grow up / I will never wear a tie / or a serious expression / in the middle of July."Nobody leaves Candy Land voluntarily, so childhood's upper age limit began to stretch. Teenagers ceased being young adults on the verge of responsibility and became, well, teenagers. This age cohort, and its presumed need for extensive self-indulgence, had never existed before as such because in the past economic realities required maturity that teens had somehow been able to produce. With the prolonging of education, adolescence could be stretched even further through four years of college and graduate school. Even some 30-something "kids" weren't eager to buckle down when they could still party with friends, and they resented employers for expecting punctuality. Meanwhile, baby boomers found the role of young rebel so intoxicating that they've cultivated it into their 50s.The irony is that constant "fun" isn't all that much fun. A scent of anxiety lies over a land where no one is in charge. Our right to sleep around and buy what we can't afford and lie our way out of obligations has a corollary: others betray, rob, and lie to us. Even when we get away with all the marbles, conscience murmurs a subtle refrain of shame and failure. Grandad the World War II hero may have been tragically unhip, but he didn't doubt whether he was a grownup.Perhaps there should be a voluntary Grownup Society with its own code of honor: I will be chaste, I will be honest, I will put my children first, I will earn my paycheck, I will not spend more than I earn. The support of other grownups would be crucial, because the code will be tested over and over in situations where everyone else is doing it, and everyone thinks you're an idiot for not doing it, and sticking to the higher standard is going to gain you nothing tangible except weariness.Why bother? Because eternal childishness sounds like fun but, in practice, it feels queasy. A life without honor and self-respect is aimless and anxious. Uneasy lies the head that wears a baseball cap.

Article continues below
Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's sister publication Christian Parenting Today ran an article entitled "Growing up with God to encourage parents on how to train children for adulthood and maturity in Christ.Is the Casual Friday phenomenon going too far? Read U.S. News's "Casual Friday, five days a week" and ABCNews's "Casual Chaos: Casual dress causes confusion at work."Adolescence can extend past 30 says a New Harbinger article.Christianweek says TV is partly to blame, because sitcom stars refuse to grow up.Many of William J. O'Malley's Peter Pan Syndrome conclusions agree with Mathewes-Green's claim that teenagers and their "presumed need for extensive self-indulgence," never existed until economic realities no longer demanded maturity from adolescents.Read a sermon about "Peter Pan Christians" who are afraid to move from spiritual milk to meat.If you're a fan of the "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" show, or you're curious to know what it was all about check out the sites for the "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" show, or the Fernwood Central site, or the Mary Kay Place Place.Visit Frederica Mathewes-Green's Web site at www.frederica.comEarlier "Your World" columns by Frederica Mathewes-Green columns include:

Article continues below
  • Get It? (May 18, 2000)
  • Sex and Saints (Apr. 11, 2000)
  • Psalm 23 and All That (Feb. 15, 2000)
  • The Abortion Debate Is Over (Dec. 28, 1999)
  • The Thrill of Naughtiness, (September 6, 1999)
  • Escape from Fantasy Island, (July 12, 1999)
  • Men Need Church, Too, (May 24, 1999)
  • My Spice Girl Moment, (January 11, 1999)
  • Moms in the Crossfire, (October 26, 1998)
  • Gagging on Shiny, Happy People, (September 7, 1998)
  • Whatever Happened to Middle-Class Hypocrisy? (July 13, 1998)
  • I Didn't Mean to be Rude, (May 18, 1998)
  • So I'm Sorry Already, (April 6, 1998)
  • Don't Blame the Publishers! (February 9, 1998)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Frederica Mathewes-Green
Frederica Mathewes-Green is the author of several books and has been a commentator for National Public Radio, National Review, and other media outlets. Her books include The Jesus Prayer and Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. Mathewes-Green's podcast "Frederica Here and Now" is carried on Ancient Faith Radio. Her column, "Your World," ran from 1998 to 2000.
Previous Frederica Mathewes-Green Columns:

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.