Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When do the kids turn into adults?


Ah, life with kids. It's been my mission, my all-encompassing project, my focus and attention, my purpose, my meaning, my every day, and my everydays for a long time now. Sixteen-plus years, in fact.

So when does it end?

Working as a river guide I heard a bunch of times that silly tourist question that always arouses snickers around these parts: When do the deer turn into elk? Silly, but that, to me, is a lot like how we look at kids turning into adults.

But, seriously, when does a boy become a man? A kid an adult?

Not that I'm hurrying the end along. With that end in sight, I'm savoring every taste of those every days, and those everyday experiences of life with kids. But right now we're in an interesting transition zone around here: My 16-year-old son wants to be treated like an adult -- of course. But my wife and I find (or at least feel) we need to keep intervening in his life in the role of parents, because, well, in a nutshell, he's only 16.

And it's got me wondering, when, exactly, do those kids become non-kids?

There are several logical and easy landmarks proposed as marking the divide between adolescence and adulthood, including
  • Getting a driver's license. The first sort of "adult" thing kids have to opportunity to do -- and about the closest thing our culture offers as a socially recognized rite of passage. Seeing many of my kids' friends now doing this, and hearing my son talking it up, I'd say it it's a start, but hardly proves, or rarely even indicates, any sort of "adultness" of the bearer. 
  • Turning 18. This, of course, is the legal definition. Meaningless aside from a nice, clean -- and completely arbitrary -- number.
  • Turning 21. When you are old enough to drink. Which, I, myself, think, is stupid. Frankly, I'd rather see the drinking age at 18 and the driving age at 21.  
  • Graduating high school. 'cause then kids really get to see the fantasy they were living in high school. 
  • Entering college or the military or getting a  job. This, I agree, almost surely gets shifts a kid's psychic transmission into the adult range of gears. It still often takes a while to learn how to use the clutch to keep from grinding those gears, though ...
  • Getting married. Which is, as any married person can tell you, indicative of absolutely nothing related to being an adult. Except in the "adult film" sense.
All valid points of departure worth noting on the landscape between kidhood and adulthood. But none of them really are good, useful, or validating definitions of adulthood. None of them can offer some observable, viable, visible cue that a young person has moved from kid to grown up.

And as a parent, I'd like some measure. Something for myself, and that I can offer up as a compass bearing, a sort of psychic GPS, to my kids. 

So after much thought and observation, I'd like to propose the following two-point operational definition of "adult":
  • Adults control their attitudes. Only children think they can always do only what they enjoy. Adults seek meaning and enjoyment, and endeavor to do their best, at whatever they do, in whatever circumstances they finds themselves in. Even -- and especially -- in situations they don't control. 
  • Adults are responsible for their journey. Only a child thinks you can just float along and be okay. Adults actively, deliberately, strategically navigate their lives and their situations. It's like river running: adults learn to not blame fate or nature or the nature of things, they don't blame what got them where they are, and they don't blame others for where they are now. They act. They enjoy the float, but they also learn, observe, plan, and adapt. And if they flip, wrap or swim, they don't blame the river. They get back in and row again, wiser.
In short, adults know their lives are their true work and art, and that if they don't make it into something, others will.

I understand. This offers no nice clear number to mark this definition of "adult." You don't get any card. It doesn't even grant with any particular freedoms or abilities.

But it's still what I'm going to look for in my own kids as they get their driver's licenses, graduate from high school, move into the world, start their own families. Somewhere along those landmarks, I will be looking for real adults to appear.

And I will welcome them, as peers.

1 comment:

  1. While I love the idea that "adults contol their attitudes" and "adults are responsible for their own journey," I know many so-called "adults" who do neither!

    When my older son was 16, I sent him on a NOLS trip. He's a smart boy, but not academically smart, and he spent the first two years of high school making really, really bad choices. The first words out of his mouth after 5 weeks in the widerness were: "Mom, I feel so accomplished."

    I nearly broke down in joy.

    From that day on, he truly became a man, one I am so proud of and, more important, he is proud of.

    When our kids have the freedom to do the right thing and they do it — and then continue to do it — that is perhaps when they become an adult.

    Don't worry: you'll see the shift in your son, and then you'll realize that this, indeed, is what parenting is truly about.

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