What does it mean to be an adult? And does age have anything to do with it?
I would guess that most of us, as children, wished at some point to be grown up. For some, that may have been eagerly anticipating being tall enough for a theme park roller coaster, big enough to ride in the front seat, or old enough to make our own choices. For others, perhaps, childhood is marked by pain or grief – the end of childhood come too early. Personally, I can remember a time I was upset after a youth soccer practice (for a reason I’ve long since forgotten), sitting on a curb with my head heavy in my hands. To comfort me, my father said tenderly, “It’s hard being seven, isn’t it?” To which I replied earnestly, with a sigh and the weight of the world on my seven-year-old shoulders, “I just can’t wait to grow up.” How many of us wished the same?
Now that I find myself on the other side of childhood, I wonder what’s been lost in this transition to adulthood. I am cognizant that something in us changes – not just biologically, of course, but in the way we see ourselves and the world – when we leave childhood behind to enter adulthood. We can experience this change as a loss that tends to be followed by a vague longing, nostalgia, or just plain confusion. In fact, for most of the people I talk to, there seems to be a near-universal reluctance to fully embrace adulthood despite the promises of freedom, choice, and ownership. It turns out adulthood is harder than we thought!
This longing for youth is certainly not a new concept. Nursery stories and cultural archetypes like Peter Pan or Mr. Toad have long been capturing this reluctance to enter adulthood and longing for innocence, abandon, and childlike joy. Indeed, in the mental health field, we see these concepts scattered throughout our texts – Freudian thought, attachment theory, developmental psychology, work with addressing the inner child, play theories, and countless others. Perhaps authors and psychologists alike know that this reluctance and vague longing points us to a greater truth – that there are pieces of a childlike perspective that are meant to be retained, nurtured, and protected – and other pieces that should be left behind. What is lost in this transition to adulthood? What should be retained, and what pieces do we need to let go?
Perhaps wrestling with these questions marks adulthood. Adulthood, rather than an age or a developmental stage, is embodied in the moment-by-moment choice to learn how to be the most integrated – our most grown, matured, and best – versions of ourselves.
This idea of adulthood – as a choice we encounter in each moment to be our best self – becomes especially relevant in light of the mixed messages we receive about adulthood. Are we adults when we can enlist in the military (18)? Drive or rent a car (15, 25)? Buy alcohol (21)? Age-out of the foster system, be tried legally as an adult, removed from parents’ health insurance plans (18-21, 18, 26)?
Our culture’s social scripts about growth provide even less clarity. Here’s what we hear: Better not grow up too fast! Ugh, GROW UP. Never, ever grow up. You’re being a baby. Act like an adult! Be forever young. Here’s what we see: countless anti-grey and anti-wrinkle products, yet marketing for video games and electronic toys targeted at adults; ageism in the workplace despite unparalleled numbers of aging baby boomers and a commitment across the disciplines to meaningful aging. We see more and more media coverage of sociological concepts like emerging adulthood, generational theory, and those pesky, self-and-technologically obsessed Millennials (said with the ironic pride that only a Millennial herself could muster).
Surely, an alternative way to conceptualize adulthood becomes relevant in this context.
The Myth of Adulthood Knowing, and a Call to Curiosity
How many of us have looked around and wondered, “Who’s the adult around here?” (most often heard following an unexpected expense, an emergency repair, or a large mess), only to realize that the adult is, in fact, us? This moment of realization highlights a common myth of childhood: that adults are the ones who should always know what is going on, know the answers, know what to do.
However, many of our wisest teachers admit the very opposite. For example, in Socrates’ famed text, The Apology, the philosopher writes, “I am very conscious that I am not wise at all.” Zen monk and teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, seems to agree: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Therapist Ron Siegel echoes this paradox in therapy’s context, in an article entitled Wisdom in Therapy: “When I conducted a poll asking experienced clinicians to describe a wise therapist, one of the most commonly mentioned attributes was awareness of the limitation of one’s own understanding.”
These thinkers, and a myriad of others, point to a common truth: there appears to be an unexpected relationship with how much we think we know, and how much we actually know. The more we think we know, the less wise we actually are; inversely, an awareness of how little we really know seems to be a marker of true wisdom.
This leads us to a piece of childhood to be retained, protected, and practiced: the open-minded curiosity and humility of a beginner. A place with many possibilities, this adulthood knows that adults don’t have to know everything, after all.
Choice and Childhood
Embracing this not-knowing opens the door to making choices about what kind of adult we want to be.
For example, the idea that we hold the capacity for both childlike and adultlike versions of ourselves is probably familiar. Certainly, anyone who travels home for a family holiday, and suddenly feels like their 16-year-old-self arguing with a sibling at the dinner table or letting someone else do their laundry, knows this to be true.
Sometimes, we find ourselves playing out our childhood selves in other ways. Perhaps we are far too reliant on other people to solve problems for us. Maybe we stay stuck in familiar family roles – the baby, the responsible oldest, the rebellious one, the overlooked child – well into adulthood. Others of us perhaps play out our childhood selves by avoiding responsibility, acting selfishly or impulsively, being fearful of independence, or hesitating to assert ourselves. Maybe we want to assert our autonomy and independence but feel stuck, or are missing something from childhood that we want to find. Each of us has our own brand of how this childhood self looks and acts.
As kids, we learn about our world (is it safe? will my needs be met? am I lovable?) and develop ways of thinking about our relationships and surroundings that are usually quite adaptive. In adulthood, however, these strategies can become automatic – or, as interpersonal neurobiology expert Dan Siegel writes, reactive – and can hold us back in developing to our adult potential.
As adults, we don’t have to re-act automatically; we can choose how to think about ourselves and our world based on who we are and what we know, now, as adults. In his book, Mindsight, Siegel outlines three skills as central to this kind of self-awareness:
- Openness, or “receptivity to whatever comes into our awareness, without clinging to preconceived ideas about how things ‘should’ be.”
- Observation, or “the ability to perceive the self even as we are experiencing an event.”
- Objectivity, or, “permission to have a thought or feeling and not be swept away by it.”
So here’s some stuff from childhood we can let go: reactivity, automatic ways of responding to situations, old patterns of interaction, assumptions of the way things should be, fears of experiencing ourselves differently. Instead, we can choose to act with the openness, observation, and objectivity of an integrated adult.
Shaky, but Deeply Courageous
There is an entire YouTube meme dedicated to videos about “puppies going down stairs” (Google this immediately for an instant warm, fuzzy feeling). Usually, these videos start with a tiny puppy, standing at the top of an enormous, daunting staircase, perhaps with a barking, whining, or pacing that can only be anthropomorphized as fear. Then, amazingly, with the bravery of a much older and taller dog, these puppies take their first step down one stair, and, upon realizing that they can do it, they find themselves conquering the entire staircase. Does this sound familiar?
Developmental psychologists talk about scaffolding – the idea that we grow by slowly expanding our comfort zone to include more and more of what was initially unreachable. This kind of learning requires meeting challenges, making mistakes, and allowing ourselves to learn from these mistakes. A therapist and researcher Scott Miller said at a recent workshop, the bravery required in seeking this kind of transformation is “the same bravery it takes a baby to walk her first step.” Or a puppy to go down the stairs.
Here’s yet another childhood trait to be retained, then: a courageous – albeit shaky – determination in meeting challenges, and taking the risk of falling flat on our face.
Own It, and Do Something Different Next Time
The childlike willingness to make mistakes becomes adultlike when adults actively seek out ways to learn from these mistakes. It takes deep vulnerability to take ownership of a mistake. Further, allowing ourselves to do something different the next time is a profound act of adulthood. Allow me to offer an illustration from my own experience.
It is no secret that I am a young therapist. I remain unsurprised when clients and colleagues show curiosity about my age, and, although I have practiced clinical social work in a variety of settings with a variety of client populations in a variety of U.S. cities over several years, I don’t blame the curious. After all, most of us assume that age is associated with competency. Indeed, it is quite natural and oftentimes accurate to equate life experience with increased expertise in any field. Surely, more time spent practicing a craft should make us grow. Right?
Actually, the research consistently shows that it’s not just practice that makes perfect, but also a certain kind of practice that makes perfect. Specifically, it’s the kind of practice environment in which we own our mistakes, and intentionally practice trying something different next time. For this reason, I consider my age to be my most powerful asset as a therapist – a constant, built-in reminder to remain a courageous learner. I believe that my therapist heroes embody this trait, at all ages along the spectrum.
And so it is with us adults. Regardless of age, growth continues to happen in those shaky but courageous moments, when we dare to take a brave step in the direction of learning something new.
Scott Miller (2013), Achieving Clinical Excellence workshop; Atlanta, GA.
Ronald Siegel, Wisdom in Pscyhotherapy,. Psychotherapy Networker March/April 2013.
Daniel Siegel (2010), Mindsight.