When Do We Become Adults?

Turning eighteen does not make you an adult. It is not when you get your license, or when you buy your first legal drink. It is not when enroll in college or move out of your childhood home. Adulthood cannot be generalized or summed up into a few events. Freshman year I felt myself on the breach of my youth, inching towards adulthood, experiencing bursts of maturity that I would counteract with a “that’s what she said” joke or by eating Cocoa Puffs for dinner. Now, as a sophomore, I feel the child in me progressively fading as I gradually evolve, though I still eat Cocoa Puffs for dinner.

By universal definition, an adult is a person who is fully grown or developed. In the United States, 18 years of age marks adulthood because we can join the army, work and drive, gamble and vote, and can be charged as an adult in a court of law—no more juvenile detention. Then we reach the pinnacle age, 21-years-old. We order a martini shaken, not stirred, and smugly sip until we forget how little we’ve accomplished at this much anticipated age. It is then that we realize how inexperienced we were at 18, and that adulthood is more abstract than we thought.

“Eighteen is a number. Paying for your own belongings, renting an apartment, taking care of a car or a way to get around; that is all growing up,” says visual and media arts major Javaun Crane-Bonnel, ‘16. “When you turn 18 you are most likely still in high school or just out of it, so unless you get kicked out of your house and are all on your own, you probably are leaching off your parents for at least a few years.”

Legally being an adult is not actually being an adult.

Once Crane-Bonnel finishes his final year at Emerson’s Los Angeles campus, he hopes to move away from home, but the option to live with his parents is not off the table.

“I would see it as moving backwards in growing up,” says Crane-Bonnel. “If you stay with your parents forever you just have to fall into line under their rules and their lifestyles.”

After college, it has become trend for 20-somethings to move back home, spurring the terms “boomerang kids” and “failure to launch.” According to New York Times article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”, Generation X has diverged traditions. We remain with our parents longer and are financially dependent longer, we get married later, and we delay having children until a job is established. Journalist Robin Marantz Henig writes, “To some, what we’re seeing is a transient epiphenomenon, a byproduct of cultural and economic forces. To others, the longer road to adulthood signifies something deep, durable and maybe better-suited to our neurological hard-wiring.”

And that long road to adulthood is what we are traveling on now. College offers the chance for people to see the world through their own eyes. They learn the consequences of when they mess up, instead of feeling the pressure not to mess up. They have to teach themselves how to do things, instead of asking their guardians to do it for them, and consequently, they realize how many things they were never taught.

As we grow up, responsibilities inevitably pile up. Party nights disintegrate into work nights, birthday cards are replaced by credit card bills, and paying rents and mortgages are no longer just Monopoly concepts. And for those with strained parental relationships or a guardian who is not present, adulthood is thrust upon them sooner rather than later.

“My mom’s been sick my whole life, so I never really had the whole ‘not responsible thing,’ says visual and media arts major, Taylor Roberts ‘18. “I guess parents, in a sense, are safety nets. When worse comes to worse Mom and Dad can handle something. Having parents is kind of like a team— people that help you handle things—and now it’s all me.”

The article cites Clark University psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who says that 18 to 20-somethings are in a post-adolescence period called “emerging adulthood.” This stage is marked by five psychological milestones: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, and a sense of possibilities.

Roberts’ mom passed away Sept. 20, 2015. “When somebody passes away you don’t think of the technicalities of it, but then the dust settles after the funeral after all the condolences. I have to do all the business calls that my mom would do for me, like fighting with financial aid— things that your mom or dad would swoop in and take care of,” says Roberts. “It’s definitely hitting more now that I have to do things for myself.”

“In the later years I realized that’s there a lot of things that my mom couldn't do for me,” says Roberts. “I think she just instilled in me how to handle things, how to be an adult, but she never explicitly told me ‘this is how to write a check,’ but she gave me what I needed to understand how to do those things.”

The lessons of our predecessors never go away. Instead, we transform them. We take their teachings and apply them to our developing set of values and beliefs. There will be days of conflict and trauma and those are the times when we, the emerging adults, need to refer back to the old-timers, so we recall a story or quote from our parents or teachers.

“Childhood is like having blinders on, like a horse, where you see things linearly,” says Roberts. “Finding out now that you're a part of the world, everything just gets wider in the sense that everything you do can affect something.”

There is no age requirement on impacting the world, but when we grow and develop our chances at making a difference spike. We have the tools and if we don’t, we at least know how to get them. We have a “sense of possibilities.”

Visual and media arts major Leilani Thomas, ‘18, spent four months abroad last semester. “On my first big trip to Italy for a week, I was kind of doing it alone,” says Thomas. “There were definitely moments when I was like, ‘I wish somebody had told me how to read a map. Holy crap, I don’t have cell service and I have no idea where I am.’ I think how you handle those stressful situations shapes you a lot into who you are.”

“I don’t do anything exceedingly stupid, but honestly, when I first came to college I definitely went through a little of a rebellion phase,” says Thomas. “I think the morals they instilled in me growing up affect my actions more than their restrictions.”

The lessons we choose to adapt to our lives, or to exclude, help us grow as people. We are the product of our experiences. The events we fall victim to and the obstacles we overcome alter our character and embed themselves in our memory. These memories we then use as reference down the road when faced with similar challenges. And it’s the challenges that we start to face alone that establish our maturity as well as our our identity.

“Even the little things like when you're sick and you have to go to the store and buy what you need, you don’t have your mom to drive you to the doctor, you can’t just lie in bed and she’ll bring you your medicine and your food. You have to handle that stuff,” says Thomas. “I guess [adulthood] is when you start paving your own path in your life.”

And that path will have potholes and down trees. It will be in a perpetual state of construction, but as the path extends, it will grow smoother. By then, you’ll know the ways to avoid disasters and you’ll have acquired the means to repair problems.

Today, we choose our own friends because we have the social capability and judgement. We spend time with friends without adult supervision because we are the adults now. We spill milk and then we clean it up ourselves. We leave our shoes in the entryway, trip on them walking in, and then kick them aside so it won’t happen on the way out. We learn every day.

“[Adulthood is] replacing the voice in your head from being your parents or your favorite cartoon character to you having to tell you what to do,” says Roberts.

Perhaps we become adults when we form our own lessons, based off of our own stories; when we start to hear our own voice in our head instead of the lessons of our guardians; when we are no longer just the student, but also the teacher. 

It’s when our parent’s warning to “be careful” becomes overshadowed by scars and bruises. It’s when we stop hearing our mother’s voice telling us to do our homework, but remember the times we pulled an all-nighter and then overslept the class.” It’s when we start solving our own problems—problems we created for ourselves. It’s when we start making decisions because we want to make them, not because our parents want us to. It’s when we finally know what is best for us.

“You’re an adult. You're shaping your own life,” says Thomas.

Our experiences influence our thoughts and these thoughts transcend into actions. Our eyes have witnessed trauma strike and love kindle and the occurrences swim in pools of color; green and blue, hazel and brown, surfacing when reference is needed. Our bodies have stored the feeling of scraping our knees and bumping our heads. Our fingers remember the singe of a hot pan and the chill after holding a snowball. Our skin remembers the edge of a piece of paper and the tip of a blade. Our minds store these memories and these memories act as lessons that we teach ourselves.

We keep our memories and lessons on replay because they are what made us who we are today. And we cannot be the adults we want to become, and we could not be who we are today, without our child self. We preserve our collection of Barbies and Pokemon cards and we refuse to give away our Hess trucks. And like our preserved toys, we preserve our youth at our core. When we emerge from being young adults to adults, we establish a developed, advanced identity, we don’t lose a previous one.

Art by Pim Phongsirivech