What Does “Adult” Mean?

As a child, I used to think there was a portal to adulthood that everyone passed through at some point—on their 21st birthday, maybe, or when they graduated from high school or college, or at some other magical milestone that I would reach someday. On the other side of that portal would be “the answers.” The confidence, wisdom, and grownup status to know, in pretty much all circumstances, what to do and how to do it.

By now I know better. If such a portal exists, I haven’t found it yet.

Oh, I know what “adult” means in the legal sense. It refers to someone who is old enough to legally vote, buy alcohol, enter into contracts, serve on juries, and do other grownup stuff like get tattoos or piercings without needing anyone’s permission.

Biologically, the definition of “adult” is even simpler. It means full-grown, mature, and developed.

Then there’s the XXX definition of “adult.” As in “adult films” or “adult magazines,” which apparently is an attempt to make them sound more respectable than “pornography.” I find this a little ironic and more than a little annoying. My book Once Upon a Different Story, for example, contains retold fairy tales meant to be entertaining to grownups rather than children. Yet if I describe them as “fairy tales for adults,” people are likely to expect something like “Goldilocks and the Three Bares” or “Seven Dwarves in Shades of Gray.” And shouldn’t an “adult film” be one, not with self-centered sex, but with thought-provoking themes, intelligent humor, or—at the very least—more ideas than explosions?

But never mind all that. At last, decades after becoming an adult in the legal sense, I may have finally discovered what it really means to be a grownup. One of my 60-somethingish friends recently took her three-year-old granddaughter along to lunch with several other women, who were all in their 80’s. The little girl pointed out that the older ladies were “all adults.” Right, her grandmother agreed. “But I’m not an adult. I’m a kid.” Right again. Then she looked thoughtfully at her grandmother. “And you are almost an adult.”

That’s one of the best summaries of adulthood I’ve ever heard. Because adult life is all about feeling in over your head. Having to make decisions when you have no clue which one is better. Being faced, over and over again, with situations you’ve never dealt with before. Encountering crises, major and minor, that you’re unprepared to handle. The baby spikes a fever in the middle of the night, or the car or the refrigerator starts making ominous noises, or you lose your job or get offered a new job, or you thought you’d found Mr. Right but are beginning to suspect his first name is “Always.” You glance over your shoulder, looking for the real grownup to tell you what to do—and there’s nobody there but you. You don’t feel like an adult, but “almost adult” is as close as you’re going to get, so you take a deep breath and do what needs to be done.

If you’re lucky, this works reasonably well for a few years or a few decades. Eventually, you might even begin to think you have this grownup thing figured out. You start thinking maybe you merit the title of “adult” after all.

Then it happens. You order at a restaurant, or you buy tickets at the theater, and the server or cashier asks, “Are you an adult, or a senior?”

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “What Does “Adult” Mean?

  1. Ginny Buhr

    I realized I was an adult when I was visiting our grandmother in my 30s and got to eat at the big dining room table rather than the kids table.

    • Moving to the big table–that’s about as clear a milestone to adulthood as you’re ever going to find. Thanks for reminding me of that story!

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