Rethinking Adulthood

By Bill Nolte | Feb 09, 2012
Bill Nolte, Associate Superintendent, Haywood County Schools

It is usually a good idea to ground our beliefs in factual information, known experiences or commonly accepted definitions.  When it comes to adulthood the facts have changed somewhat over time.  Early definitions of adulthood were based upon physical development.  This was usually linked to the onset of puberty or the ability to reproduce.  This worked okay when the average onset of puberty was in the mid-to-late teen years.  However, a number of studies and some first-hand experience tell us that the onset of puberty is now common before the age of ten.  Some folks are comfortable with using physical development as a marker for adulthood.   However problems arise when there is physical maturity but no emotional maturity.  We actually have a word for this condition … adolescence.  

If physical development alone is not a good indicator of adulthood, what can we use?  Well, we frequently use age to determine when people can have adult liberties.  You can vote when you are eighteen years old.  You can get married when you are eighteen … but you could get married as early as age thirteen or fourteen with parent permission … depending on the state where you live.  You can join the military and fight for you country when you are eighteen.  You can legally drink alcohol when you are twenty-one in most states.  However, in some states you can drink at any age as long as the alcohol is provided by the parent.  By now you can see that age is not always a good way to determine if someone is an adult.  Age is probably better than physical maturity … but … age alone is still not a great indicator of adulthood.

If physical maturity and age aren’t good consistent indicators of adulthood, can we or should we use emotional maturity?  This is a slippery proposition with obvious pitfalls.  However, it makes some sense to use emotional development and corresponding behavior as indicators of adulthood.  Aren’t adults … or shouldn’t adults be … reasonably on time, regularly law abiding, frequently civil, generally responsible … you know … people who typically … act like adults?

Some senior citizens sell drugs.  Some twenty-five year-olds can’t or won’t get up on time.  Some parents leave soiled diapers on their infants or fail to feed their children.  I have a hard time thinking of these folks as adults.  Sure they are over eighteen years old and they are physically mature.  However, these folks really aren’t adult-like.  Real adults are self-sufficient, productive, independent contributors to society.  They do things that help others grow and add to the lives to those around them.  Real adults make the world a better place.  That’s my new 2012 definition of adulthood, people who are responsible and contribute positively to lives of others.