Privilege Blog

Are You An Adult? Or, Saturday Morning at 9:26am

I was asked, the other day, “What makes an adult?” An interesting question. Can we locate a definitive marker of adulthood?

  1. Age. We’ve established some arbitrary legal definitions, here in the US. Does anyone think that’s the answer? No? I didn’t think so.
  2. Biological capabilities. Once one can have children? Uh, clearly not. Lift 250 lbs at the gym? Please excuse the silliness, we’re illustrating a point. Insufficient.
  3. Events. Graduation from school, marriage, birth of a child, taking on a mortgage? Still insufficient.
  4. The capability to sustain a host of such events? Getting closer.

If positive identifiers cannot solve the problem, let’s try reductionism. Do we know what an adult is not? I think the only unquestionable statement we can make is that an adult is not a child. So what is a child?

  1. A young person. But we’ve established that leaving youth behind doesn’t guarantee full adulthood.
  2. A child is someone who cannot fend for themselves.

Yes. Adults must be able to fend for themselves. Eat, sleep, pay bills, on their own. Sufficient definition? Still, to me, no. Human society has evolved beyond sufficiency, beyond just staying alive, and so has our concept of adulthood.

My son was talking to me the other day about a philosophy class he’s considering. He explained that in the last century, under the stress of science, philosophy separated into two schools. The Analytic and the Continental. Right then and there you know that one involves kippered herring and the other, chocolate croissants. Unsurprisingly, the path to meaning tends toward chocolate.

In essence, the Continental idea, which I believe to be true, is that we get at real understanding about people via narrative and emotion. That neither binary logic nor reductive reasoning do the trick.

The real question then. When do we feel like adults? Whatever your own voice says is probably right.

Myself, I feel like an adult when I’m crackling with perspective. Perspective in the artist’s sense, i.e. creating distance to intensify reality. I think of those moments when I rise above immediate events and see against the context of time. Or put myself in someone else’s shoes, and know how they feel.

Or, particularly, when I understand my own self with perspective. If adults were wizards, we’d chant Maybe Yes Maybe No as our Spell of Spells. In an understanding of choice, you take the first step towards responsibility. That’s another aspect of my own definition of growing up.

Here’s what I believe, most of all. Adulthood entails demystifying personal necessity. Inevitably, the needs of others surface in the cleared space. I feel most like an adult when I care for others as though they were in some way my own child.

But this is just my story, in the morning, with tea and thoughts of chocolate. Yours may be different – no one is apt to tell it but you.

Thank you @alilnapaz and @katiethecoxie for asking. As always, visit Delia for more thoughtful, long-running meditations on adulthood.

41 Responses

  1. I felt like an adult in my 20s when I began seeing my parents as interesting individuals apart from their role as my parents. Also, in my 30s, when I went to tell my mom that I’d found my dad had passed away in his sleep, when she sent me to make his funeral arrangements and to make decisions on my own; good practice for Mom’s death 18 months later. When I hired an attorney to probate all the estates left intestate. When, in my 40s, for the first time I bought a house (this last one) without consulting any one else’s wishes or pocketbook. In my 50’s when I wrote a will and imagined me not existing. I have to say that these days it’s more fun to consider when I’ve felt child-like!

  2. For goodness sake, dear friend, it’s Saturday! hehehe Better suited for Monday…when I pull trousers up in the morning black, desperately needing coffee, making my way toward “adulthood” : )

  3. This is sublime writing and thinking, Lisa… Thank you. I have been asking myself this question my whole life and you truly helped to put it into perspective.

    In the end I, too, would say it’s about compassion and sensitivity to others and to the world.

    Doesn’t everything always come down to Love?

    Thanks again. You made my day.

  4. This is one of those Privilege posts when Privilege Is A Verb. I do love it when you unfold one of these solitary quests of yours, authoritatively distilling as you go, making a path to your own truth, demonstrating the difference between one’s own truth vs universal truth. This is when I first came to see myself as an adult: around the age of 50/ 55, it was introduced to me for the first time that there was such a thing as my own truth, that it was valid, that it needn’t align with anyone else’s truth, that it might even collide with generally-accepted universal truths. So I’m about 10 years old now, young for the first time!

  5. An interesting topic, I’ve been thinking lately that so many adults I know seem to so easily revert back to an adolescent-like preoccupation with themselves. I think it creates a lot of unhappiness.
    When I can step back and recognize what matters and what doesn’t matter I feel most adult.
    I am also a believer in the Continental idea, interesting as my son is now studying philosophy and he only has regard for the Analytic, but he is studying physics and math as well, this explains much!

  6. Knew you’d have the answer I was looking for and wasn’t quite sure how to articulate, though it was percolating ever so faintly in the periphery of my thoughts.

    Merci beaucoup


  7. Somehow I felt that I didn’t achieve adulthood until my early 30s. I was fully educated and financially responsible prior to that age, but suddenly I shouldered what should have been shared responsibilities all by myself. I looked at that basic unfairness and shouldered on. So, you are correct that it has something to do with our understanding of our fellow humans.

  8. I think I became an adult at 22, when I gave up my hard-fought first real job offer in Boston to come down to Philadelphia to help my single mother through her cancer treatment. It was the first time in my life when I truly acted unselfishly after pretty much a lifetime of self-indulgent behavior. I felt the grown up pleasure and satisfaction of doing the right thing, the hard thing, and the unselfish thing for the first time, and have never once regretted it.

  9. Compassion. Doing the right thing when every inch of you “doesn’t feel like it.”
    Learning to hold life’s sorrows and joys in your mind and heart at the same time.

  10. I truly enjoy your blog, Lisa! I am inspired to share, because I didn’t say this but I can’t remember who did: You are an adult when you throw a party because your parents are IN TOWN. Not because they’re out of town. :)

  11. Earlier this year I have been asking me the same question:

    At school we used to have those friendship books. You would invite your friends and also familiy members to fill in their favourite dishes, music and books, eyecolour, haircolour and what their career aspirations are etc. Many friends age 10, 11 wanted to become a vet. My sister wanted to become a mother. I wanted to become a grown-up. How comes I have known myself back then so well already?

    Writing a Blog to me seems to have almost counter-productive effects on my attempt to become a grownup. It so reminds me of the whispering during class among the girls, secretly passing papers with notes, gathering during breaks, sharing experiences, and of course the excitement and the misunderstandings … schoolgirlhood revived.

    Having no children may play a huge part. Angela Merkel has no kids and I remember Alice Schwarzer saying once that Angela Merkel has the innocent smile of a girl and she is never going to lose it.

    In the presence of my parents it is difficult to face them as an adult. I obviously lack some authority in their company.

    I immediately notice, when a colleague does not behave like an adult: that’s when they have emotional outbursts and can’t controll their temper and value impulsiveness over consideration, behaving like newbies at 30years and above.
    Not so good!

  12. I became an adult when I got married and left home.
    I was the bread earner while my husband went to school and studied for 6 years. Paying bills, and juggling finances on one meagre income made me grow up so fast my head spun!
    I had quite the awakening after being cared for by my parents and didn’t have much clue about money!

    It was a great and valuable lesson.
    I am a better person because of it.

  13. I vividly remember when I first realized that being fully grown was not the same thing as being an adult. I was a teenager and visiting a friend’s house where his mother, who must have been in mid late forties at the time, proceeded to behave abominably, like a messy, spoilt child. As I witnessed her behavior, I understood for the first time, really, that not every grownup was an adult. What a revelation that was to me!

  14. On a personal it seems easier to define by what is excluded, no longer acceptable. As in certain beliefs and behaviors requiring change. Loss added to the perspective, greatly. Very, very deep thoughts, even deeper writing. You made me think. (The horror.)

    Smiles coming your way, and hopes the weekend, what remains of it, is stellar.

  15. I have started to feel like an adult very quickly, after I become a mother and moved across the world in my early twenties. I went straight from feeling like a child to feeling very grown up, almost old. Maybe this is why, now in my forties I want reclaim the missing ‘young’ part of my life. Of course there is always the dychotomy of being an adult while part of us is still surprised of not being a teenager anymore.
    Funny, I did a post on age today…

  16. This is by far my favorite post I’ve read here, thank you Lisa!

    This is certainly not the definition of adulthood, but I *feel* most like an adult during those oh so uncomfortable moments when I realize (more acutely than usual) that no one is going to fix my situation/take care of me/do what needs to be done except for me. Still gives me a tiny bit of panic, at first.

  17. Many of the comments focus on the more sober aspects of adulthood–shouldering responsibilities, relinquishing childhood innocence, etc. However, there are also the privileges of adults–setting your own standards, having a great deal of independence, enjoying a more sophisticated life, taking the role of nurturing others and ‘passing the torch’, etc.

    One problem with defining adulthood is that while it has its elements and characteristics, it is not a distinct condition with exact boundaries. Thanks for this great post and food for thought.
    –Road to Parnassus

  18. Love this, Lisa. And love your framing of the definition around “perspective.” I think that the sort of psychological distancing we achieve as adults (though Lord knows many of us don’t!) is a crucial part of it – it is, somehow, the ability to see things from another point of view, unlike the child who must be /should be solipsistic.

    I also like Road To Parnassus’ comment that it’s not just the negative assumption of burdens but the positive freedom that comes with it. My 8 year old often asks me whether I’m happier now or when I was a child and the answer is “both” because freedom/responsibility cuts both ways.

    Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful Sat am post. And for the shout out!

    Delia Lloyd

  19. A brilliant post Lisa.. but then again, all yours are just that. Made me think too. I feel that I became an adult when I struck out and lived in California on my own, rented a little apartment and paid my own bills on time every month! x

  20. Great question.

    I have always had a very old soul. I’ve never really understood immaturity and adolescent behavior. And due to circumstances beyond my control I was an adult by the time I hit my teens. Or so it seems to me.

    Ditto what Babette said. Compassion is part of it, too.

  21. Truly liked your idea of understanding your own self with perspective; might even stop at that.
    No way to understand and accept others, if not understand and respect oneself.
    An adult? Being able to cut the strings attached to your home. To leave. To come back some day again.
    A mission, I was unable to do..

  22. A story my mother likes to tell is that a therapist told her when she was in her mid-30’s that “she was the most child like patient he’d ever encountered.” She took that as a compliment. My mother is a real narcissist, in the true pathological, psychological definition of the disorder. I understood it early, as many children of narcissists are forced to, and realized that I had to be the adult. I think your description of “demystifying personal necessity…..” is the most comprehensive definition of an adult that I’ve ever heard.

  23. find the idea of being able to fill the basic necessities – feeding oneself, paying the bills etc – to be problematic. Implied in that sentiment are a few things that I am assuming are unitended, as illness or injury could potentionally render one incapable of doing either of those things, and I don’t believe that it would impede one continuing along adulthood.

    I think, so often, adulthood is in the eye of the beholder. It’s seeing that difference between your childhood self and who you are now, and feeling the distance. As you said, perspective.

    1. You are right. I did not mean that illness or injury renders one non-adult. In fact, probably requires even more adulthood in its way.

  24. I think I have “felt” like an adult from about the age of ten. Being the eldest of eight children, I always had a lot of responsibility. It helped me mature and my cousins set a good example of how to be a young lady.

    Art by Karena

  25. This afternoon, my six (and three-quarters! she reminds frequently) year old daughter asked me, “When are people adults?” I responded that, legally, most places consider a person to be an adult at age 18. She pondered that for a bit, and while she was thinking, I asked her what age she thought people should be considered adults – 19? 20? 21? 25? 30? Maybe my age?

    She quickly responded: “You’re not an adult…you’re just old.”

    I had to disagree. For if I wasn’t an adult, I most surely would have promptly dragged her off to the bathroom and given her a swirly in the toilet for that remark. As it was, I just grabbed a pair of socks I had folded and beaned her with them. (She’s young, you would think she’d know how to duck much more quickly than she did.)

    Very adult, I think.

  26. Again, such an excellent post Lisa. I sometimes felt more of an adult than my parents while growning up, and by the time I left home at 21 I definitely was. I wonder the definition my 19 daughter would give….I think I’ll ask her!

  27. Hi Lisa, I am here for an all night visit, since life in my little dot of the universe has prevented me from the pleasure of reading blogs for a while and even though your post arrives regularly with a ping in the middle of the night over here, I never seem to get here!! And I was looking for your dinner party post but this question had me contemplating the adult delimma once more. My kids now 26 and 22 often fling out a remark ” Oh grow up mum” when I seem to “get out of hand and silly” Well I am approuching my half century at the speed of light, it feels to me, so that gives you an idea. I had huge reponsibilities at an very early age and my adult years occured in my teens and twenties… from then on it was down hill I’m afraid and now I look one way but destinctly feel that eighteen was just the other day! For the first time in my life I feel, after my divorce, and now that there are fewer responsibilities towards kids education, etc,I am free to please myself and my way is to be do all those things that I could not as a teenager…learn to tango, go backpacking through Europe etc, So, basically I am confused and will hopefully grow up again and be an adult at same stage but for now… ( darn I forgot to pay them bills on my desk!!)


  28. Oh, this is rich. “Adulthood entails demystifying personal necessity.” It took me fifty years to accept this peacefully. Damn.

    And being different isn’t wrong. But the Jungian stuff has me clearly in the Continental Chocolate Camp.

  29. I think when one finally starts realizing that the world does not revolve around them alone…the hopefully graceful, and not too painful, entrance of adulthood immerges into a calm realization of wonder and peace.
    xo J~

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