Thursday, June 24, 2010

What Makes a True Adult?

As I was reading last night, I came upon a vignette about achieving adulthood that made me think much more about the topic than I ever have before. It was in Rachel Naomi Remen's My Grandfather's Blessings, a book I'm thoroughly enjoying reading. In it she wrote, "I remember reading once in a book on developmental psychology that only a parent can confer adulthood." The statement got me to thinking about whether I feel like I'm totally an adult, whether my parents ever "conferred" adulthood on me, and whether I, in turn, have ever "conferred" adulthood on my children.

The first step, of course, was trying to figure out what I thought truly defined adulthood.

Biologically, we are adults when we become capable of having children. Obviously most of us do not consider ourselves or any one else a true adult just because we can reproduce - at least we don't once we get past the teenage years.

Legally, we are adults when we turn 21. Most of us know 21 year olds who may be adults legally but are far from adult in their actions. In fact, I'd guess that most of us know 50 or 60 year olds that we don't really consider adult.

Which leads me to my mental meandering: what does someone have to exhibit before I consider them to be truly adult?

To see if I could gain any insights from a closer look at the word itself, I consulted the dictionary. The definitions included
"fully developed and mature: GROWN UP",
"of, relating to, intended for, or benefitting adults",
"dealing in or with explicitly sexual material", and
"one that is adult, esp. a human being after an age (as 21) specified by law."
So there were elements of biological adulthood (sexuality) and legal adulthood, but no new concepts that help me clarify my instinct that there's something much more than sexuality and/or age to truly being an adult.

Self reliance is part of my personal definition of an adult. This is a little tricky, though, because the older I get, the more I realize the importance of interdependence. Humans are at their best when they are working together to achieve a common goal, such as raising children to be happy, functional adults or creating a vibrant, supportive community. These goals often require people to "specialize" in one area where they support others and, in turn, rely on others to specialize and support them in complementary areas. Both family and community life, done well, give us many examples of this sort of interdependence.

Attitude is a big part of it. The adult steps up to the plate and assumes his or her role, looking for ways to help others make their jobs easier, when possible.

The "adult-in-name-only" (whom I will call the "subadult" from here on out) looks for ways to get out of doing their work or ways to game the system so that they get more than their fair share. It never crosses their mind to help others just for the sake of helping - they only help others if they think it will earn them a "quid pro quo" or brownie points.

To me, the adult puts the good of the whole before their own personal good. The subadult puts their own personal good ahead of the good of the whole.

There are other points, as I think further on the subject.... Adults look for groups to join with, or work to do, where they can be of service to a common good, while subadults expect others to be of service to them. If they join "common good" groups, it's often primarily as a resume builder. Adults have the courage to stand up for their beliefs and convictions, while subadults go along with whatever will make them popular or gain them money or net them some other personal advantage. Conversely, adults can accept that others may not share their beliefs and can accept others' heartfelt convictions as right for the other person, as long as those beliefs don't undermine the common good.

I'm sure there's more, but I'll stop for now. So do I meet my own description of an adult? Most of the time, I think, but not always. There's always room for improvement.

As always, too, it's a balancing act, because part of being able to act for the common good means taking care of yourself so that you are healthy and whole. How much self care is healthy? When does self care become narcissistic subadulthood? I think this is the area I'm having the most trouble figuring out. A good topic to chew on as I go out, again, to battle weeds in the garden.

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