Adulting

A boy is not a man.

Likewise, a girl is not a woman. An adult has knowledge, wisdom, and experience that an adolescent will need years or even decades to acquire. An adolescent thinks about the next day, the next year in school and maybe occasionally what happens after high school. They are not yet legally and practically able to care for themselves in the larger world.

A harsh youth accelerates the route to adulthood but at a cost. The inner child may be crushed. It does not recover easily. Without an inner child to give us joy, the accomplishment of adulthood is hollow. The inner child is not necessary for life but it is what makes life worth living. Think of adulthood as being the cookie outside the Oreo. It protects the creamy filling from the vicissitudes of life.

Trials of endurance that one may fail at and try again are another, better, way to accelerate the maturation process. I don’t like competitive sports in this application because it is too easy for the objective of winning to overwhelm personal growth. Also because there is only time and attention for naturally good athletes. Again, coaches don’t win great praise and high honors for turning total clutzes into mediocre athletes or average players into slightly better than average players.

Climbing ranks in scouting is a much better way to instill long-range thinking and goals. But many kids aren’t cut out for such things. Few have the patience or interest in becoming an Eagle Scout or climbing thru the ranks at all. If you’re forcing an activity, the most you’ll get is resentment.

An adult thinks about a much longer time horizon. You can’t help it. Having lived decades, you realize there are decades yet to come. A breakup will seem like the world came to an end to an adolescent while an adult has had it happen before, knows it may happen again and understands that this too shall pass away.

An adult thinks about sending a baby to college while it is still nursing. An adolescent worries about how much the child will restrict their social life. An adult thinks about long-term career strategies. And how to care for their parents when they get old. And how to keep their credit rating good. An adolescent doesn’t plan for needs beyond their own.

Delayed gratification only slowly seeps into the young mind.

There is no one thing that makes one a grownup. Not being able to drive, not having first sex, not graduating from high school, not being able to vote or moving away from home. Not being able to drink or smoke, not being a Daddy or Mommy. Not even being eligible to be the President of the United States. We have many different little stages one has to pass to be a full-fledged cultural and political adult. Yet none of then teach you anything about being an adult. Only years of experience can do that.

Lots of immature and childish people make babies and have jobs they don’t care about and run up their credit cards without thought. It is being mature enough to handle these things productively and not destructively that marks the adult.

Adulting is not easy.  In a post-modern age it may be that as affluence increases and technology advances, adulthood becomes unnecessary for most people.  Like driverless cars, it will all be taken care of for us.


Older societies used to have elaborate ceremonies for reaching adulthood.

These rituals may include tests of character and competence. One of the most famous might be the Australian Walkabout. The Bar and Bat Mitzvah are examples of ceremonies that remain today. So are the quinceanera and quinceanero. Instead, we have a host of little steps. First driver’s license, 18th birthday, graduation from high school, leaving for college, joining the military, moving out of the family home, 21st birthday, first full-time job, college graduation, becoming a parent.

Every step along the way some authority will sonorously intone, “And now you are a man/woman!” Somehow you never feel the job is… complete.


Today adulthood is culturally delayed but biologically earlier.

In times past, adulthood was a requirement one was forced to come to much earlier than today. It was pegged to earliest reproductive ability, more or less at an age just around when most would begin puberty. Puberty kicked in much later in the old days.

The onset of puberty has fallen by 5 years since 1920.

“in 1860, the average age of the onset of puberty in girls was 16.6 years. In 1920, it was 14.6; in 1950, 13.1; 1980, 12.5; and in 2010, it had dropped to 10.5. Similar sets of figures have been reported for boys, albeit with a delay of around a year.”

I am old enough to remember that. When I was in junior high, a girl with a significant bust was uncommon.  Many boys were still pre-growth spurt. Fast forward 50 years and I’m doing a short stint as a substitute teacher for elementary school. By 6th grade, we had lots of kids well into puberty. I have read a number of articles on the topic and the gradual change seems to be linked to increased fat levels in children’s bodies.

That, in turn, can be blamed on technology which means almost no physical labor is required of us. OTOH, it makes our recreational activity a sedentary affair. We have universal and easy access to cheap high calorie, good tasting, food, and drink. The average birth weight of babies has also increased over the same time.

There is a problem with the numbers. There have also always been fat children and there are still skinny children. Nobody is setting aside these specific groups for study to see how much their age of entrance to puberty changed.

Some other factors could be responsible or (more likely) co-responsible. It could as easily be improved nutrition since more and more food over time has been enriched with vitamins. Other people blame the decrease in fruit and vegetables eaten. Pick a food additive and someone somewhere has blamed it. Or sex hormones or pesticides or fluoride in the water.


But wait! There’s more!

Prior to the mid 20th century, there was no consistent method for measuring the start of puberty. Except for menarche, it wasn’t considered important. Tiny physical changes wouldn’t – and subtle hormonal shifts couldn’t – be measured. We do have very accurate ages of first menarche going way, way back. But menarche is a poor proxy for when puberty really starts and doesn’t help the measurement of guys at all.

It appears from a different study that in medieval Europe puberty started only a little bit later than today. It just took a lot longer to complete.  Did that make the 1800s an especially bad time for children? Did the industrial revolution suck the fat levels down and put so much stress on children’s bodies that it delayed the onset by years?

How much can we trust measurements of 500-year-old skeletons to tell us about puberty? And are we dancing around different definitions of puberty?

Children aren’t starting puberty younger medieval skeletons reveal

The average age at which children entered puberty was the same as for most boys and girls today: between ten to 12 years. But medieval teenagers took longer to reach the later milestones, including menarche.

The adolescent growth spurt that signals the most obvious external physical changes occurred between 11-16 years, and menarche at 12-16 years, with the average age at 15 years. In medieval London, some girls were as old as 17 before they had a period. And boys and girls did not complete their adolescent growth spurt until 17 or 18 years.

For these teenagers, growing up in a rapidly expanding and overcrowded London, 26% had not completed puberty before they died at 25 years of age. The age at which modern and medieval children progressed through the pubertal stages after puberty onset was different. However, just as today, there was a wide age range of children within each stage, including the presence of some early maturers.

Girls typically got married in their teens. The fear of unmarried pregnancy was an important part of this. I read a study of marriage in colonial America where the rate of unmarried pregnancy was similar to that of today but unmarried birth was extremely low. It was not an age where Murphy Brown had that option.

The concept of childhood itself is a relatively new invention. Being of tender age offered little in terms of protection in the social and legal worlds until the last couple hundred years. A preteen without support still had to work for a living in the fields or sweatshops or mines or prostitution or thievery. Britain was just as quick to hang a 13-year-old as a lifelong hardened criminal for committing the same act. We may owe our modern concept of childhood to Charles Dickens.

College is usually where adolescents turn into women and seek careers instead of jobs but it can happen younger, especially young people who are forced to be self-sufficient early. There are high schoolers on the cusp of adulthood and elderly who have never grown up, so, no hard line can be drawn at ANY age.

Generally, I refer to everyone under 18 as boys and girls by default and everyone over that as men and women by default. However, I am flexible.  Being a minor does not preclude an adult outlook on life nor does legal majority suddenly turn you into a responsible citizen. I’ve known 16-year-olds who were as adult as one could ask for and people twice that age who hadn’t gotten beyond their selves yet.


The brain is not fully developed until about 25,

So maybe THAT could be a useful boundary. But so many behave in an adult fashion before then and so many stubbornly keep the bad aspects of childhood to the end. A simple number is not the answer.

But seriously, there is no contest between 17 and 31 for the same person in terms of adulthood. Even among those who had to “grow up early.” One does not suddenly change from girl to woman, boy to man. Starting at puberty and continuing into middle age and senior life, the balance between shoujo to josei or shounen to seinen shifts in numerous little jumps. We may decide where there was a tipping point but there should always be a bit of child in every adult, no matter how old. It is important to keep that inner child alive.


Find your inner hero.

Joseph Campbell’s “Mono-myth of the Hero’s Journey” is really about the process of growing up. You are never really an adult until you discover the inner hero in you. Take the 1960 movie “Magnificent Seven” (“The Seven Samurai” rebooted into the Old West of America). Chico starts out as a boy. He wants to be a glorious gunfighter, the product of a boy’s fantasy, lacking any kind of roots or commitments, yet the subject of adulation and desire.

By the end of the movie, he could be the gunfighter of his dreams but instead chooses the route of the peasant farmer and true manhood. This is the route of hard work and sacrifice, love and commitment to something more important to you than your own comfort and ease. As pointed out during the movie, real courage is bearing the burdens of life and becoming a good person.

Unwavering commitment to something greater than yourself, regardless of gender, makes you a greater hero than any gunslinger.

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