When we are born, that moment is registered with our names on a piece of notarized paper that makes it socially official. When we marry, or die, the absolute same. This sheet is, I believe, more than just useful for institutional and bureaucratic reasons, but also meaningful, because we are beings of symbolism, too. Our bodies tell us, in their puberty changes, that our childhood is over and we enter this turbulent period our contemporary world has defined as and baptised “adolescence.” But what tells us we have matured up to the point of being – as daunting or as freeing as it can be – adults?
That’s a tricky question that bears no universal answer. Firstly, because we don’t live (yet?) in an entirely homogeneous global society. Different societies across the world and over centuries mark and have marked this transition in their own manner, based on different criteria of what maturity is. Bravery tests, settings of clothes, rituals of isolation and reintegration of the individual within the group with the new standing, tasks and roles are not strange to the human species, despite being strange to our western modern world. Secondly, due to the simple and wonderful fact that – even when sharing a common cultural ground, traditions and values – individuals develop at their own rhythm and pace, and have diverse paradigms or parameters around the same concept. Therefore, if a certain turning point is considered generally valid – say, the age of 25 – it won’t necessarily be true for everyone, it can happen sooner or later for different individuals, who also consider different features as characteristics of maturity.
This undeniable relativism doesn’t make, however, this reflection useless. Asking around, out of curiosity, “what do you think makes one a proper grown-up?”, I have been inspired some interesting thoughts about the issue. But before going into that, let me share with you the tragically obvious answer I heard 100% of the time, from friends and acquaintances in different age groups and countries. Can you guess?
“Financial independence”. Not leaving your parent’s home to live away, not starting your own family, not making your own decisions. Being financially self sufficient. That’s it. That’s the threshold that allows us access to the recognition (from us and others) of our adulthood. And, how naive of me to expect otherwise! It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Since we live in a capitalist society in our lovely western world, money is central, a source of power, material and symbolic. Having your own money means you have a position in the world of production, services and consumption that we have built – the more money, the better your position. Well done, human adult!
I cannot disagree – for this is an aspect that defines our society, undoubtedly and indisputably, whether we like it or not (and I personally don’t). But, on the other hand, I cannot bring myself to fully agree either. This is an important aspect, but not the only one. Adulthood is about more than just paying your own bills.
“Independence”, more generally, I feel, would be more adequate to associate with adulthood. After all, what distinguishes a child from an adult is the dependence of one in relation to the other. Be it for expenses, preparing food or keeping the house in order. I have observed that people feel and are considered more mature when they develop (and not necessarily fully achieve) a more independent position in life, in several senses. Financially. Yes. Emotionally and psychologically, too – which means your general well being, peace of mind, choices come mostly from you and are not dependant on someone else, especially a parent. Practically and materially – which concerns the general progress of life, as in dressing and nurturing yourself, organising and keeping the space where you live, managing relationships, time, decisions at all levels.
Additionally, “responsibility” is a key factor for maturity. Isn’t there such a thing as the age of legal majority, when you start to be legally responsible for the consequences of your actions? I believe that applies more broadly too. When you’re a kid, you’re not responsible for what you do. You are not aware of the repercussions of your acts, which sometimes you don’t commit intentionally. You’re excused, or someone else covers for the damage you cause, in case of bad behaviour. When you’re an adult, on the other hand, you are and make yourself responsible. For the results of your words, your behaviour, your decisions, actions and omissions on your life and on those around you. You start to see your parents not only as those who provide – money to expenses, answers to questions, safety and stability in a chaotic world – but also as full (adult) human beings, who fail, who feel insecure and need reassurances, and above all, who also need care. You start to be responsible for them, as they have always been for you, in a more equitable relationship, which is also, I dare say, a transition touchstone towards maturity.
All in all, becoming an adult is a continuous process of changing, adapting, maturing, much more than an event with a fixed date and time. And nobody but yourself can sign your own “adulthood certificate”, which exists based on your criteria, your feelings and your experience, rather than on any silently socially established standard. No one is going to teach us “how to become an adult” , or give a statement attesting to it – or recognise our own. As anguishing and disorientating as this lack of official seal and clear requirements can be, it also has its positive sides: we can and surely will make tons of mistakes and feel plenty of insecurity, insufficiency, inadequacy along the way. We can be unique adults too – thank heavens! – as we have been unique youngsters. And we don’t need to erase our naughty smile, enthusiasm for the new or the simple, naive daydreams or cool T-shirts, as some more serious and boring grown-ups would have us do, if they could!
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