When does someone enter adulthood? The obvious answer most would give is, “When they turn 18.” Those who are a little more thoughtful, or consider their own life, may give a benchmark: When they graduate from high school, when they support themselves financially, when they get married, or for some even, when they have children. Both fall short, though. What about the person who never marries, are they not a true adult? Or if a couple decides not to have children or are unable to have children, do they remain children themselves? And on the other side, what about someone who, at sixteen years old, is working a full-time job in order to support their single parent and younger siblings: have they not entered adulthood simply because they haven’t reached some magical age?
I have come to see the transition to adulthood as just that: a transition, a process. So if there isn’t a specific time that you “become an adult”, if adulthood isn’t measured by an age or a benchmark in life, then what is adulthood? Why do we even differentiate between someone who is a “child” and someone who is an “adult”? In the simplest terms, our society defines adulthood as the age when an individual can be held responsible for their actions. So when you are 17 years and 364 days old, you are not responsible for a great number of possible actions. In fact, not only are you not held responsible, but your parents can actually be held responsible for what you have done. Rather than looking at it as a day, though, a moment in time, I would suggest that one enters adulthood when they begin making decisions that will affect the rest of their life.
Some may argue that this makes everyone an adult. A 6 year old can make the decision to jump out of a window or not, and that decision will very well affect the rest of their life. I would agree and even take it the step further to say, in that small area of their life that 6 year old has more responsibility, and is closer to adulthood, than an infant, who cannot make that decision. In effect, I am defining adulthood as responsibility. In our culture we recognize adulthood as a time when a person can be held responsible, so parents allow their child to live under their roof, adding no value to their own life or the lives of others, and then suddenly when that child turns 18 the parents expect them to hold a steady job, pay rent, and make life altering decisions. But in reality, that “child” was already making life altering decisions, they just weren’t being held responsible. And since they weren’t being held responsible, they didn’t feel responsible.
So adulthood is responsibility: making decisions that will affect the rest of your own or somebody else’s life. But I would make a further distinction between adulthood and maturity. Adulthood is when society allows you to make decisions that affect the rest of your life; maturity is when you realize that the decisions you make are affecting the rest of your life (and others’ lives). So, the 25 year old who continues to live in their parents’ basement playing video games instead of trying to get a full-time, life supporting job has made a decision that will affect the rest of their life. They have decided NOT to pursue a life-sustaining income. However, they do not yet realize that by deciding not to act they are altering the outcome of their own and other’s lives, so they are an adult, but they are an immature adult. And the 16 year old who takes everything seriously, tries their best at school, and thinks about where and who they want be in 10, 20, and 50 years but whose parents still control every decision that they make: not allowing them to get their driver’s license, choosing their college for them, and perhaps even pushing them into a career, is mature even though not being allowed to function as an adult. In fact, it is possible to have mature children not functioning as adults because of immature adults who are parents.
Adulthood doesn’t entitle you to anything; in fact, it requires things of you (maturity, wisdom, and caring for those who can’t care for themselves). Too often we’ve presented adulthood to our children as an age, a point in life, rather than teaching them how every decision they make has consequences. We shouldn’t teach our children to be adults, we should teach them to be mature; and once we see maturity then they can be rewarded with the responsibilities (and privileges) of adulthood, even if only in some small area of their life.