Tuesday, January 12, 2016

When Are You Really an Adult?

I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly the other day: When Are You Really an Adult?  The subhead of the article's title was: "In an age when the line between childhood and adulthood is blurrier than ever, what is it that makes people grown up?"

That's a very good question, given how a lot of people behave lately. As we see every day, acceptable behavior is not normally a good indication of responsible adulthood. Angel posted a few college fraternity house banners in a post the other day which clearly demonstrate that adulthood is but a mirage shimmering on the distant horizon for many young men* whose mental age is far short of their physical one.

The article provides an interesting discussion of the various ways in which we determine that someone is an adult, among them:

Chronological age (generally 18 or 21 years);

Biological age (puberty, the age at which bone growth ends, etc);

Legal age (there are numerous variations of this, based on the age at which one may legally smoke, drink, drive, buy weapons, enlist in the military, etc). These vary widely from state to state and nation to nation;

Age of Consent (whatever that means in a society as soaked in sex as ours is);

Completion of a social or religious ceremonial rite (bar/bat mitzvah, confirmationquinceañera, etc);

Graduation from an educational program (high school, generally at 18; or college, generally at 21 or 22);

Marriage (probably not a good measure if a shotgun was involved); or,

Becoming a parent.

I don't think that any one of these, by itself, is a true marker of adulthood. Clearly, chronological age is not a valid measure, as there are both a lot of very mature pre-teens and a great many utter morons of more advanced age (as in Congress, or the clowns occupying the bird sanctuary in Oregon). Biological age is also unreliable, particularly given that the age of puberty seems to be dropping and will probably reach 6 before I shuffle off my mortal coil. Ceremonies are nice, but mean nothing. And it's obvious from the number of children with single teenage parents (generally with no father taking responsibility) that parenthood is not a good measure, either.

I'd never really thought about this in relation to my own life. In fact, I don't think I ever considered a line that divided my childhood from my adulthood. Looking back, I think I could identify three events that might have served.

The first was my commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force back in 1973**. I was 21 years old at the time, and a new graduate of Penn State with a shiny new Linguistics degree clutched in my hand. When I stood in Schwab Auditorium on campus, raised my right hand, and took the commissioning oath, I was agreeing to accept responsibilities far greater than any I'd had before ... including the responsibility to give up my life if that was called for. It should have been a serious wake-up call, but I don't remember if I recognized it as such.

The second came in May of 1974, when my first child was born and I realized I was responsible for shaping a life other than my own***.

The third came just last year when my father passed away, making me suddenly the patriarch of the family. My mother died in 2001, and with dad's passing I no longer had an honored and respected family elder to ask for advice or counsel, and no more direct connection to a long and fascinating family history ... all of a sudden, I became that family elder, with a need to show that I deserved the honor and respect we'd all paid to dad. This is the one that hit home ... and I was 63 years old.

The question of when we become adults is a complicated one, and the answer is different for everyone. Agnes would probably question - frequently - whether I've crossed that boundary, myself. There's no good single measure, and it's probably a judgment that needs to be made by persons other than oneself.

Just be sure to ask Agnes about me on a good day, okay?

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


* Inasmuch as I have a granddaughter who is approaching college age, I take a pretty dim view of such things.

** Those of you who have served in the military will no doubt question whether a Second Lieutenant is actually an "adult," but just work with me on this, okay?

*** My children have grown into fine, strong, capable adults ... in spite of my mistakes and shortcomings, which are legion.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

You wrote nice, thoughtful piece about when adulthood is attained; there are not easy answers. Maybe it ultimately is the existential sense that life is serious, played for keeps. Marriage, parenthood, assumption of responsibility for others can be in the mix. Some, like those banner makers may shy away from it for a while; nut adulthood is out there like a barking dog. Thanks for the shout, Bilbo!

Big Sky Heidi said...

I have seen adulthood. Can I go back to Franklin and high school?

Mike said...

Lawyers generally want to put the age of 30 for the release of all the money in a trust. If you're 30 and are not smart enough to handle your money, you probably never will be.

allenwoodhaven said...

Interesting to think about. So many definitions for so many situations!