20 April 2009

Are You Grown Up?

(By Judith Stone)

"Maturity includes openness to experience, trust in oneself, having an internal code to guide value judgements and developing the willingness to regard personality as an ever changing process."

If only there were a clear-cut test of maturity: "If U Cn Rd Ths, Yr An Adult." Or a public service announcement: "The American Grown-up Society urges you to learn the seven warning signs of maturity: Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Doc..."

But there are no such signposts, and many of us are confused, especially those who grew up with firm but misguided expectations about what the signs of maturity might be. At one point early in life, I was convinced that the issue was tissue: When you had a box of Kleenex in every single room in your house, it seemed to me, you were an adult. Bette Midler once said that she'd always thought you were grown-up when you had a rug in the bathroom. A college advisor informed a friend od mine that maturity meant being able to tolerate ambiguity, though my friend was fairly sure it had more to do with having book shelves that didn't involve cinder blocks.

Using the scientifically sound method of Asking Around, I learned that among the highly anticipated signs of adulthood were the first non-hand-me-down sofa, the first matching plates, the first BMW (the first BMW?) and earning your age.

Latter it turned out that the real markers, the ones that made the people I talked to feel like adults on the cellular level, were far different. My friend Dennis says he knew he was an adult when going to sleep early felt like a privilege, not a punishment. "I used to think adults handled everything calmly because they were mature," he says. "Now I know they're just too exhausted to get upset." For one women, the passage to maturity was making a career decision not based on how it would affect her life with a man. "I realized that no one was going to save me and I had to take care of things myself. And by the way, "she adds, "this isn't something that sticks once you feel it. You have to recapture this territory over and over." Other reported milestones: realizing that not everyone has to like you; no longer needing to bait your parents; abandoning the philosophy "If it feels good, do it."

"I actually stopped doing things I wanted to do but that I knew would be bad for me in the long run," one woman said. "I realized this the day I sat under a beach umbrella instead of frying in the noonday sun. But it didn't happen in that second; apparently I'd been doing adulthood for a while before I noticed."

Aha. A pattern. Though each of these markers is idiosyncratic - there's no one wasy to become an adult - all were ultimately about behaving as if you're a person who takes responsibility for herself and the consequences of her actions, acknowledges that she's part of something larger than herself, and knows how to deal with others' needs as well as her own.

In fact, several people, men and women, told me they didn't really feel like adults until they had children. Not just because of the satisfying comparisons - it's easy to feel superior to a small, incontinent person who chews on her feet - it's that suddenly you're the protector; another's needs and desires must take precedence over your own. Adulthood can also be forged in the fire of loss: The death or serious illness of a parent changes your perspective. But you don't have to have a child or lose a parent to experience the shock of mortality or the sweet surge of selflessness.

If you have trouble thinking of yourself as adult, maybe it's because deep down you don't want to be one. (And if your response to this statement is "I know what you are, but what am I?" some soul searching may be in order.) Perhaps you had lousy adult role models and you don't want to be like those people. Maybe you hear only the groan in grown-up. Maybe you equate maturity with giving in, selling out, the death of dreams.

The psychologist Carl Rogers offered a wonderful one-size-fits-all description of adulthood. Maturity, he said, includes openness to experience, trust in oneself, having an internal code to guide value judgements and developing the willingness to regard personality as an ever-changing process rather than a static product. He mentioned nothing about Kleenex.




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