At this point I’m not too far off from being 20 years old. T-w-e-n-t-y. There won’t be any -teen in my age anymore.
I started thinking more about this toward the end of my second semester as a freshman. My English class was trying to figure out exactly when a kid becomes an adult, and we had difficulty pinning down anything specific. The obvious answer was an age requirement, but what age would that be? 18 (when you’re tried in court as an adult)? 21 (when you can legally drink)? 25 (when you can rent a car)? And what about in other countries?
The second easy-way-out answer we decided on were physical qualities, but you wouldn’t call a 6′ 4″ high school sophomore an adult just because he casts a shadow over you. We also tried to specify certain “levels of maturity”, but after a lot of hand-waving we still couldn’t come up with a definitive answer.
Of course, we all had to write papers on the topic, and the below is an abridged version of mine. It isn’t perfectly formed, but the idea I proposed made my peer editor misty-eyed, so there may be something to it worth sharing. Key points are highlighted, and you’ll notice some familiar quotes toward the end.
Do you remember when you became an adult? Was it the day you discovered that your eyes were level with your Dad/Mom’s? The first time you held your drivers’ license? The instant you became 21? The week you moved into your first apartment? The day you got married? The minute you finished inking your final signature on your first home mortgage? The moment you heard your first child cry?
Or what if you aren’t an adult yet? Are you looking forward to the day when people start treating you like one? When will that be? Once you reach a certain age, height, or weight? Whenever your Mom decides that you’re “mature” or “responsible” enough to do things on your own?
It’s difficult to point to a singular, definitive characteristic that separates adults from kids simply because there isn’t just one. What makes a kid a kid and an adult an adult is the sum of multiple hard-to-quantify aspects of adulthood/childhood. Physical characteristics are one aspect, level of maturity is the second, but a third aspect of adulthood that isn’t typically considered is the willingness to ask the simple question: “Why?” What really separates a child from an adult is the willingness to question the world around them; to wonder why things are the way they are, why they can’t do certain things and why some things (supposedly) can’t be changed.
Kids don’t become adults when they grow to a certain height or reach an ambiguous level of maturity; kids become adults when they stop asking questions and start repeating answers.
This ambition to question (and possibly change) the world is possibly the best indicator of childhood because it’s something that a majority of adults lack. Those adults in the minority, who think differently and see the world through child-like eyes, are more like “big kids” than they are adults.
… (A boring discussion about age/appearance/maturity omitted here) …
When comparing kids and adults, the most obvious distinguishing characteristics are physical. Just a quick look at someone is usually enough to determine their height, build, and clothing, and we compare those details to the average adult height, build, and clothing style of the typical adult. Young boys usually don’t have very broad shoulders and typically aren’t as muscular as adult men, for example, and adult women aren’t usually seen walking around in short-shorts or wearing pigtails like young girls either. These visual indicators are very useful in separating young kids from adults, and they allow readers of graphic novels like American Born Chinese to quickly recognize that the main characters are children without being explicitly told. Wei-Chen’s bright yellow shirt with a toy robot’s face on it, for example, would be highly unusual for a teacher to wear, and so the reader knows that he’s a kid. Jin’s short stature compared to his parents and teacher is also a very good and almost obvious indicator that he’s still a kid as well.
These physical characteristics, however, become much less useful in determining whether or not someone is an adult during the teenage years. We can try to use physical characteristics to approximate a person’s age, but many teenagers look more adult-like than most adults. The muscular basketball player in American Born Chinese is larger and seemingly stronger than the average adult male, for example, which would make discerning his kid/adult status very difficult based on his appearance alone. Teenage years are often thought of as being the blurry transition period during which a kid becomes an adult, but the physical changes that occur during that period don’t necessarily make them full-fledged adults. A teenager could be seven feet tall, but if he were still in high school he probably wouldn’t be called an official “adult” by most parents. A 19-year-old college student with a deep voice that’s well suited to radio also wouldn’t be called an adult, and neither would an 18-year-old with tattoos, piercings, and a leather jacket.
Like physical characteristics, ages are also an ineffective and ambiguous means of determining whether or not someone is an adult. The United States government treats anyone over 18 years old as an adult, but many people argue that they aren’t really adults until they can legally drink alcohol at age 21. Teenagers are technically still teenagers until they turn 20, but American rental car companies still wouldn’t lend a car to a 20-year-old until they turn 25 and have car insurance. College students who are typically between the ages of 18 and 23 often refer to other college students as, “that kid,” “this kid,” or, “some kid,” even though they expect to be treated as adults because their older age. It’s clear that a numerical value alone can’t be used to determine whether or not someone is an adult, and neither can any number of physical characteristics. If these things can’t be used to determine adulthood, then the other major change that occurs during the teenage years, the mental change, is more likely to be a useful way of separating kids from adults.
This “mental change” is often called maturity. Maturity’s dictionary definition of, “having completed natural growth and development”, however, doesn’t seem to match what society’s interpretation of maturity is. We consider a mature person to be one who knows to be quiet during church, recognizes when they should help others, treats others the way they’d like to be treated, and understands that they should be polite to strangers. Maturity is a level of understanding of how the world works, and this understanding comes from many years of development and teaching throughout childhood. Eventually kids have to learn about death, murder, evil, sin, and all the bad things in the world, but sometimes true understanding only comes from experiencing things first-hand, and that requires time. The many life milestones that Alison Bechdel in Fun Home reaches like her understanding of death and her own sexual identity, for example, slowly transform her into an adult who knows far more about society than most kids. Adults are expected to know about these things, and anyone who doesn’t know about death or the importance of being respectful isn’t knowledgeable enough to be deemed an adult.
This knowledge of the way the world works affects children in two ways. The first is that it prepares them to accept responsibilities like mowing the lawn or picking up a younger brother from school. A kid who doesn’t yet know about kidnapping probably wouldn’t be sent outside to mow the lawn, and a kid who can’t help but drag race when in a car probably wouldn’t be entrusted to pick up a sibling. Eventually these responsibilities make kids mature enough to be able to handle living on their own, preparing their own taxes, and eventually getting married and being completely independent of their parents. An adult may occasionally act “like a kid” or be a little “childish” in the way they behave, but even during those times they still know and understand what society expects of them.
A second effect of increasing maturity and responsibility is that it, unfortunately, stifles a child’s incredibly creative and open mind. Too often the many stories and experiences we have of death, destruction, and financial ruin make us become bitter and overly-conservative adults. Society tells us that we won’t be astronauts, filmmakers, presidents, or CEOs because we’re most likely going to fail and, like everybody else, become desk-job workers instead. That we’ll push paper and smile when our boss walks by. We’re told that things are the way they are, and that they can’t be changed because that’s the way they have to be.
Too often our parents and our society give us definitive answers to remember instead of problems to solve, and that can cripple a young and ambitious mind into believing it isn’t that special or different; that it has nothing to offer, so why bother trying?
What nearly every kid has that nearly every adult lacks is the confidence to stand up in front of a crowd and ask, “Why?” When we’re children the adults around us smile and pat us on the head when we ask this, but when we’re adults the Board of Directors decides that we’re incompetent and lays us off. Society angrily criticizes us for thinking differently, for trying to change things that are already working “well enough”, and actively discourages us from trying to change things again. This characteristic: the willingness to ask, “Why?” is possibly the greatest determinant of adulthood.
Those who are too afraid or feel too hopeless to try and make things better have been lost to adulthood. Those who face the impossible and wonder why “it is what it is” are the kids who often discover a better way of doing things.
Kids in the past have wondered why man couldn’t land on the moon, and eventually they were the ones who did. These “big kids” are the ones who end up in history books as the greatest innovators of their time. They become Albert Einstein and make groundbreaking scientific discoveries, Ghandi and lead a world-changing peaceful protest, or Martin Luther King and help reveal our racial prejudices.
An adult isn’t an adult because he’s too old to be a kid; he’s just forgotten how to think like one.
Perhaps Pablo Picasso captured this third and often overlooked aspect of adulthood best when he said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist once they grow up.” Every young mind is an incredibly creative and forward-thinking resource that the adult world all-too-often rejects and throws away.
It’s frequently said that the future lies with our children, but it often seems like we mean that only in the physical sense. Our kids will someday inherit the Earth, sure, but we also hope that their ideas are going to change it for the better.
Part of being a kid is to look at everything in the world around you with eyes full of wonderment and ask, “What would happen if?” To push limits and challenge everything. Kids don’t just watch and absorb the news as given: they watch and constantly think to themselves, “Well, why does it have to be that way?” When kids pass through their teenage years and become physically and mentally mature adults without losing that ambition, that’s when they change things. That’s when they become “big kids” who aren’t afraid to be called “the crazy ones,” “the misfits,” “the rebels,” “the troublemakers” or “the round pegs in the square holes,” in order to push the human race forward with their bold, new, and innovative ideas. The big kids who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
Physical and mental maturity are what we typically think of as being adult characteristics, but the willingness to ask, “Why?” seems to be a compelling third trait that differentiates kids from adults. This doesn’t mean that adults can never become big kids, though. The way to be a kid again isn’t to find the Fountain of Youth; it’s to do exactly what Steve Jobs told the Stanford graduating Class of 2005 to conclude his commencement address.
“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”
We all may be getting older, but that doesn’t mean we have to become jaded, too. We don’t have give up our child-like instinct to question and learn because we wear corporate casual every weekday from 9-5.
Don’t let every day of your life be a Dilbert comic. Don’t just repeat the answers you’ve been told over and over and over because you don’t feel like finding better ones. Don’t start thinking that, despite your crappy job, everything is okay because you get a pay check that lets you have a few nice things. Don’t stop trying to make things better because you’re afraid that doing so will only make things worse.
Don’t stop thinking like a kid.