How Can You Tell You Are An Adult?

This is a question I’ve come back to many times in my life, and it’s a tough one. As a kid, there seems such a difference between kids and adults that it appears dichotomous; first you are a kid, then you are an adult. The actual transition is so gradual, though, it’s confusing.

The rituals our culture provides are pathetic and seem more and more pathetic in retrospect as I get older: graduating from high school, registering for the draft, being able to purchase pornography, being able to drink. Even graduating from college is pathetic in terms of an adulthood ritual. I just watched a bunch of people graduate from UO and they sure seemed like kids to me–certainly not children, but still dependent on parents, still at best vaguely aware of what they would do with their life, still without anyone depending on them.

There are biological markers, but no one I know was an adult at sexual maturity, even if they did manage to have sex or even conceive. Physical maturity doesn’t seem to correlate with emotional maturity at all. And brain scientists keep pushing back the age at which our brains are fully mature–lately I’ve been hearing 25 or 26, but fifty years ago it was 7, so in another fifty will we not have mature brains until we’re 45?

We could use financial independence, but what does that really mean? That we only ask our parents for help when we get into really expensive trouble? We could wait to say we’re adults when we are supporting our parents, but that’s tough for us Gen-Xers, whose parents will mostly die richer than us for social and political reasons.

I imagine the “real” answer is a combination of a bunch of factors, not amenable to a simple scheme, but I have come up with two, simple, adult-identifying schemes to offer. They are pretty subjective and fail to provide a distinct moment in which adulthood occurs, but they are my favorite ideas about this so far.

1) Gratitude for parents: We gradually become capable of understanding what our parents have done for us. Perhaps we are adults when we are able to, without idealizing them, fully appreciate our parents. This could be a good indication that we have moved past egocentricity.

2) The ability to distinguish threat from non-threat: A bus bearing down on us is a threat. Someone disagreeing with our opinion is not a threat, even if the disagreement is strongly worded and about religion, politics, or contentious-topic-of-your-choice. Perhaps we are adults when we can easily respond in an appropriate manner to the reality we are presented with–when we can consistently use reality testing.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, June 26, 2010.]