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When Do We Become Adults?

This is the article I put in our Newsletter January 2011:

“I promised I’d never let anything happen to him”  “Hmm…. that’s a funny thing to promise”  “What?”“Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him.  Then nothing would ever happen to him”

In the movie “Finding Nemo” Marlin and Dory have a conversation late in the movie.  Marlin is a classic overprotective Father who tries valiantly to defend his son from anything bad ever happening to him.  Dory rightly questions Marlin’s parenting decisions as being counter productive.  If I had been talking to Marlin I would have asked him, “Do you want your son living in your basement when he’s 35?”.  The irony of that statement, is that more and more that’s what’s happening.  In fact, Psychology Today reports that the number of individuals 25-34 who had not moved out of their parent’s house has increased 20% since 1982 and the number of individuals under 25 living with their parents is now at 50%.  There is of course a technical name for this, “extended adolescence”.  The question, why is happening and is it a good or bad thing?

The answer is, like most things, both good and bad and it’s a function of a lot of different factors.  First, the good.  In many cases “extended adolescence” means that college graduates are being conservative when they first graduate from college and get a job.  Instead of going out and taking on their own place right away they return and live with mom and dad for a while before moving out on their own, allowing them to save money.  For others, it’s a function of the difficult economic times we find ourselves in where many college graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment after college.  This “boomerang” effect as it’s known is a new phenomenon it is certainly understandable and in some cases even a good thing.  But many times it’s not, as the arrangement continues on and on.

Dr. Robert Epstein, currently an editor at Scientific American Mind, has done extensive research in the field of adolescence and believes that extended adolescence is a social disaster.  One article summed up his view this way:

He believes that emerging adulthood is a problem to be fixed. To him, the immaturity and delay of adulthood means that our social structures are broken. We need to change our parenting methods and our educational system to stop infantilizing young people and make them take responsibility for their actions while teaching them the competencies they need in order to make it in the world. (emphasis mine) (See whyismarko.com for the full summary)

The irony is that often overprotective parenting actually does more harm than good for a child because they are never given the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves.  Therefore they never have the basic opportunity to learn how to be on their own at a young age.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that as children they are reluctant to take on responsibility for themselves.  In essence what a lot of parents are doing is letting kids get through childhood without ever taking off the proverbial training wheels.  Yes, once training wheels come off the chances of a child falling off and getting hurt increase but in part, but do you ever learn to ride a bike without taking them off?

The other area Epstein identifies is how we as a culture view middle adolescence (the high school years).  From my view, he’s right on.  Think about it: we give teenagers power over life and death when they’re 16 but don’t declare them to be official adults until they’re 18, and they can’t legally drink alcohol until they’re 21.  In my view, as soon as you can drive a car on your own you are an adult and deserve to be treated as such.  We’ll often here people say “well, kids will be kids” or even worse “boys will be boys” which is really our way of excusing ourselves from providing real accountability for teenagers.  I will often hear kids (often in Confirmation) turn the blame on their parents when something wasn’t complete on time.  To me this is unacceptable.  At 14 years old our teenagers are smart enough and old enough to be responsible for themselves.  The question is simply this: are we willing to let them?  Or do we want to encourage them to live at home until they’re 35?

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  1. lynnk58
    December 3, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Well said, Brian. This is a huge problem with our society today and the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Perhaps you’ve heard Adam Carolla rant about this same subject (?). He wasn’t quite as eloquent as you but I would be happy to send you the link. ;)

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