The law says that you are an adult on your 18th birthday. But what really makes you an adult? At 17 years and 364 days you are still a minor, but wait 24 hours and *poof* you are now an adult. Have you changed in any real way in that instant when you turn 18? I don’t believe you are any different on the morning of your 18th birthday from the way you were the morning before, but I don’t believe chronological age is the best way to judge whether a person is an adult.

Why did I pick 18 as the age for becoming an adult? Since I’m an American, I am a product of my cultural background. If I had come from a different culture, the boundary of adulthood I would choose would be different. Jewish boys and girls become adults at 13 with their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Only a few centuries ago European and American society accepted adulthood at a much younger age; it was not uncommon for an 18-year-old to be married, with two or three kids.

In Africa, girls become women when they get their periods, and boys become adults at about the same time. In some African cultures, the boy or girl is taken away from the rest of the tribe by an adult, who carefully explains the aspects and responsibilities of adulthood. The child is thus prepared for the responsibilities inherent in becoming an adult. I would like to see our culture do more of this; instead, it seems that we see adulthood as something that just happens without any effort on the individual’s part.

These examples show that different cultures do not agree on how one defines an adult. Even in our own land with our own standards, the idea that one becomes an adult at 18 is more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. For instance, in some states it is possible to become an emancipated minor before one turns 18. But it is more newsworthy when a minor is tried as adult for a serious crime. As I see it, some crimes–chiefly murder and rape–are serious enough that they are considered adult by nature, and anyone who commits them has declared himself to be an adult.

So if age doesn’t make you an adult, what does? I believe that adult behavior is a mixture of mature attitudes and responsible actions, but there isn’t any specific threshold of attitudes or actions that will officially classify you as being an adult. This is part of the problem in determining who is an adult, and why people like linking adulthood with something concrete like a birthday, even though age in itself doesn’t make you an adult.

Does this mean that there are people older than 18 who are not mature and responsible enough to be really viewed as an adult? Yes. A single 40-something guy who still lives with his parents, eats their food and takes their money is not a responsible and mature adult. As a dependent of his parents, he is not responsible for his own life and well-being. A habitual welfare recipient is in the same category. Those who are on welfare for extended periods of time become dependent on the largess handed out by Uncle Sam, as he transfers the money you earn into their open palms. They are not responsible for their own lives, being dependents of the government. Before you write your hate mail, let me make myself perfectly clear. I am not saying anyone who is getting any sort of government assistance is not mature or responsible enough to be an adult. I recognize that people suffer setbacks and troubles, and part of our responsibility as adults is to help others in need. I am focusing specifically on those people who have no desire to care for themselves, and who look first to the government and others to provide everything they need. Sadly, there are now third- and fourth-generation wards of the state who have never known any kind of life outside of government handouts. I’m sorry, but I cannot see these governmental dependents as adults.

I have also heard some people state that they are mature adults because they are sexually active, but I disagree. Sleeping around with anyone and everyone is neither mature nor responsible. That is a sign of a person’s appetites ruling his actions; he becomes a slave to them, not a master. The same can be said of excessive drinking, smoking or drug use. An independent and responsible adult recognizes that some things must be done even if they are not enjoyable or exciting. A father changing his daughter’s diapers would much rather be watching football on TV, but as a responsible adult he is doing what needs to be done. After all, it’s not a job, it’s a doody. Likewise, a mother who works long hours to make the money needed to feed her family and keep a roof over their heads is a responsible adult.

The law will declare you an adult on your 18th birthday, but that age has no bearing on your individual maturity or personal responsibility. You could stand on a park bench and proclaim your adulthood to the world, not recognizing that adulthood doesn’t have to be announced–it’s something that is recognized by the people around you. When I was living in Mexico and learning Spanish, I didn’t tell people that I was an excellent Spanish speaker. My skill, or lack thereof, was obvious to the people around me. Once people stopped asking me to repeat myself, I knew I was getting better–and once they stopped complimenting me on my grasp of Spanish and just talked to me, I realized that I was finally mastering the language. Likewise, it should never be necessary for an adult to demand to be treated as an adult, because people will recognize your maturity and responsibility in how you live and act.

When the adults around you treat you as adult, then you know you have become one.

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