Last week, I was chatting with a 9 year-old who asked me what a “grown-up” was. More specifically, she asked me how I tell the difference between someone who is grown up and someone who is not. I was stumped — it was such an important, complicated question. My go-to response with kids when they ask me something profound and I start flailing is to turn the question back around (it works really well — I remember teachers doing it in school all the time), so after a few moments of fumbling, I said, “Erm, what do you think a ‘grown-up’ is?”
She said that she thought you became an adult when you finished school, could pay to live on your own, vote, and get married. I agreed that she’d technically listed off everything society considers the trappings of “adulthood”, and we moved on. But our conversation bothered me, and later I found myself wishing I had given her a more meaningful response. Becoming an adult is so much more than the generic life-event-list I’d confirmed as truth — I didn’t want her to associate the process of growing up with just those things alone. Then I realized that without using those things as examples, I had no idea how I could define it. My personal definition of maturity was still society’s definition; for so long I’d been fed the idea that adulthood and success has to do with specific events. I’d never really thought to articulate what it means to actually be a grown-up in my own terms. My definition was basically the same as that 9 year-old’s, and I’m 12 years her senior.
I think our society’s method of designating moments in life as markers of adulthood can be misleading for young people. We have this checklist of events instilled into us at a young age, and are expected go through life crossing each item off one by one till we reach the “Adulthood” bullet. But is adulthood really about landing a stable job? Is it about getting all of your loans paid? Is it marriage? Having your first child? I asked myself these questions, and heard myself answer no for each. While those events are very important in life and can certainly help one grow in maturity, to me they are not the definition of adulthood.
It seems like the focus in our society is often on having, having, having. Society wants you to have. The degree, the house, the job, the perfect partner. We assign monetary values to these things, but we also assign deeper, status-related values. I wish the focus was more on being – on how you behave as a person. For me, being an adult has nothing to do with the degree I have, the house I live in, or the bills I pay. It has nothing to do with having a significant other, and everything to do with how I treat my significant other. For example, society would tell me that getting married, being a wife, is a marker of adulthood. But I’ve met many married people who still act like children. It’s not the act of getting married, it’s how you are in the marriage that can mark you as an adult.
I understand that doing and having these things can be indicative of hard work, commitment, and follow-through. I’m not discounting the significance of landing your dream job or marrying someone you love. But I think we need to associate adulthood less with objects and events and more with character and attitude.
I work in Hollywood, where success can literally be measured in cars, mansions, awards, and gargantuan paychecks; every day I meet people who are considered to be gold medalists in the “Winning At Life” category. By society’s definition of adulthood, these studio heads, executives, producers, and actors are all uber-successful grown-ups. But when you spend real time with these people, you realize that they don’t have it all figured out. The more wealth and success I encounter, the more I am convinced that it’s not what you have or accumulate in life, it’s how you handle what you have. Maturity manifests itself not in the purchase but in the handling of life’s goods.
For me, being an adult means following through on my commitments. Being an adult means taking responsibility for my actions and not playing the blame-game with others. Being an adult means apologizing when I’ve screwed up, and meaning it. Being an adult means being open-minded and humble. People who possess these traits are the real grown-ups in my eyes, regardless of their age, job, relationship status or social standing.
I’m not sure if I’m a grown-up yet by my own definition (I’m certainly not by society’s standards), but I’m working on it, and hope to get there soon.