Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On Becoming an Adult

Several years ago a liberal friend of mine and I had a discussion about responsibility. She, of course, thought it okay that people blame others for their situation in life. I, of course, thought people should be responsible for their own actions. We focused in particular on the role of parents. Certainly, she said, I could not deny the role of parents. Of course. But at what point could we say that you can no longer blame your parents for the situation you are in? At what point was it your responsibility for the situation we are in? Well, the two of us did eventually come to an agreement on that. We decided to settle on the age of 25. We decided that after 25, you could no longer blame your parents for whatever problems you may have, that by then you had to be mature enough to have dealt with your problems, and that if you had not, then that was your fault and nobody else's.

It seems we are not alone in thinking this. It turns out that many people, children and parents both, think you are not really mature until you are 25. I have already mentioned the fact that humans seem to mature in stages: sexually at about 12-13, mentally at about 16, and emotionally at about 25. For me 25, plus or minus a year or two, was a major transition stage. This was the time when I went from working on a Master's degree in molecular biology to dropping out and taking undergraduate English classes and getting in to a M.A. program in creative writing. During this time I was dealing with taking responsibility for my life. I had to break the shackles of my past to create my future.

I think one of the reasons for this delay that doesn't seem to have existed in the past is the lack of rituals for transitioning children to adulthood. This leaves people wondering if and when they are adults. Many don't learn they are adults until they are 25. I thought I was an adult much earlier. It turns out I was merely taking the world seriously. As Aristotle says, the man who takes the world seriously is an unserious man. The two -- seriousness and unseriousness -- will be balanced out. The lack of ritual -- which is a kind of play, an unserious thing done seriously -- has left many people remaining children for longer than they should, not knowing they should now be adults. We also don't tell our children what it means to be an adult. Of course, this kind of information comes along with the ritual that lets you know you are an adult now. The Jews still have this kind of ritual, and I think we can see the positive results of that. But we have to be careful too, as the Hispanic quinceanera, which was the ritual for 15 year old girls to become adult women, has been mostly turned into a meaningless party. After such rituals as the quinceanera, parents should expect their daughters (and sons, for similar rituals) to act like adults and to take on more adult responsibilities. When they don't, the ritual becomes meaningless. In fact, my wife (who is a Mexican-American) didn't want our daughter to have a quinceanera, but I told her that Melina should have one, but only if we treat it as the ritual to transition her from childhood to adulthood that it was originally. And if we have a son, we should have a similar ritual for him, so he knows that he is a man.

Perhaps another reason for this, though, lies in the fact that people in more complex societies like those found in the West have more stages to go through, and that takes time. The aforementioned ritual would be a good way to encourage development from 2nd stage to 3rd stage, which would solve all kinds of social problems. But perhaps we should also adopt rituals to move people into even higher stages of development. This would aid in and encourage these transitions, but this is only assuming the life conditions are appropriate for such development. I think it would be particularly helpful for those few who emerge into the second tier to have some kind of guide to help with such a drastic and (often) traumatic emergence. unfortunately, our society does not have mentorships anymore like we had in the past, to help identify such people -- but perhaps we should work to do just such a thing. It would help in the fuller and healthier development of our society and culture overall.
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