What Does It Take To Become An Adult?

6 07 2010

Today, one of my best friends and I had one of the biggest disagreements we have ever had, and it got me to thinking:

What does it take to become an adult?

He said that he wanted to repay his parents for his college tuition and living expenses and then buy his own place to live, and that, to him, was growing up and becoming an adult.  My visceral response to that was extreme disagreement, but I had to dig deeper within myself to understand why.  Financial independence and owning my own place would not make me an adult, in my opinion, although these are certainly cultural milestones for growing up, along with getting married and having kids.  The problems I have with these milestones are multifactorial.  In a recent How I Met Your Mother episode, the main character, Ted, buys a house in reaction to his mother marrying a second time, essentially “lapping” him in terms of relationship milestones.  He cannot control falling in love, getting married, and having children, so he does the one thing he has control over: buying a house.  The issue I have with this line of thinking is that it puts a time pressure on getting to these so-called milestones, even though many in today’s society do not fall in love until their 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s.  Furthermore, some of us may never get married or have kids.  Does that mean we will never grow up?

My argument was that it is our mental growth, and not physical possessions or milestones, that make us an adult.  When we start to understand another person’s perspective, when we see shades of grey to any controversial topic, when we have understood our passions and gained the skills to dedicate parts of our lives to them, these are the types of milestones that really matter.  These are the milestones, in my opinion, that make us adults.  We are not allowed to drive, smoke, or vote before a certain age, mainly because it is an arbitrary number assigned to when our cognitive abilities, on average in the general population, have developed to a level that allows us to make rational decisions about these important matters.  At least this is the hope.  

I realize now that my own definition of what it means to be an adult comes from my mother: she always told me that physical assets can come and go, but no one can take the knowledge and the experience away from my mind.  (She may or may not have taken Alzheimer’s into account when she said this…)

But then I thought about my blog post on moving to Montreal.  When I wrote that, I genuinely believed that moving to a new city by myself, apart from my parents, and starting a whole new life there on my own, contributes greatly to my becoming an adult.  I guess it means that the physical changes in my life complement or help express the cognitive changes that have allowed me to become the person that I am today: an independent and competent adult who can take care of himself in a brave new world.

So what are the pre-requisites for no longer being a child or an adolescent?

In the end, I think the answer is highly personalized and it’s a combination of physical milestones and mental growth.  I think I had such a visceral response to my friend’s initial argument because I am not going to be able to afford to buy my own place for a very long time, and I can’t be sure of what the future brings, so I was hesitant to agree to any standard of adulthood that would not classify me as an adult any time soon.  But this type of narrow-minded thinking is exactly the lack of mental growth that, based on my own criteria, would render me a child.  And in any case, is never being an adult really so bad?

I don’t know… what do you think?

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4 responses

6 07 2010
Judy

I think you’re right about its being a personal answer or feeling. I met some friends of friends recently, and we had a conversation about whether or not they felt like “men.” The 28-year-old said no, while the 29-year-old said ever since he was 16.

I used to think I’ll get to a point where I’ll feel like an adult, but I gave up on that notion about a year ago. Even with moving to new cities and being “on my own,” I still feel like I’m stuck in between being a girl and a woman. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I become financially independent, or permanently employed, or married, but who cares? Why get hung up on a construct when there’s so much to accomplish!

6 07 2010
Matt Corker

One can be an adult biologically, socially, legally, and psychologically. In my opinion, becoming an adult is therefore as much of a personal thing (“I feel like an adult”) as it is a title bestowed on one by society (“We acknowledge you as an adult”) – both forms of acceptance based on biology, maturity, laws, stage of life, etc.

To me, financial and social independence, intellectual maturity, and actively contributing to an economy/community, are all characteristics of an adult. Achieving certain milestones (getting married, moving out, landing a job, going to vote, graduating, etc) help both ourselves and society accept us as adults. You feel like an adult and society acknowledges you as one. So, achieving the milestone itself doesn’t make you an adult – the acceptance that goes along with it (both personal and social) does.

6 07 2010
June

Thanks for the comments and for contributing to my own thoughts on the subject – I think both of you make wonderful points.

Judy, I particularly appreciated your point about having too much to do to worry about labels! I sometimes see adulthood as an endpoint, in which case I hope I never become an adult. I hope I never stop reaching new milestones that I create for myself or striving to evolve mentally. I would hate to end up thinking that I have stopped growing (although I suppose I have physically…=(…)!

30 08 2010
Patrick Wu

I admire of your thought. In my opinion, care, respect and trust are definitely the key factors to determine whether a person mentally mature. June, I haven’t got further news from you since your last email. Cheers! uncle Patrick from Toronto.

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