Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Final Steps On the Journey To Adulthood

February 12, 2001

You get through the teen-age years. Your very mature and capable high school graduates go off to college, join the service, or go away from home to work. You can relax now. These young adults are now grown up and on their own, right?

Wrong! At least, not quite. Well, sometimes they are and sometimes they are not.

Hopefully the young adults are managing their day-to-day lives well: being responsible, making friends, working toward goals and making good choices. From time to time, you are reminded by friends, teachers and their accomplishments how pleasant and responsible your children are.

And they are. Generally speaking, the less you hear, the better off they are doing. It is when there are problems that they call home. It is when they come home for the summer, Christmas vacation, and other visits beyond three or four days that you are forcefully reminded that they are still children in some respects.

Then you wonder. Are they as discourteous and thoughtless to their friends and roommates as they act when they are home? Probably not. Hopefully not.

One explanation could be you aren’t there to see their mistakes and poor behavior as they inch their way toward maturity. Ignorance is bliss. Or you could take comfort in the fact that the last people on earth with whom they will have a reciprocal, give-and-take, adult/adult relationship is with their parents. Letting go of "mom" and "dad" is the last step on their way to truly being an adult.

Maturity levels. One researcher found that most daughters are able by age 23 to take the perspective of their parents and see them in relatively objective terms. Sons take a little longer. Marriage accelerates the timetable, but not always.

When young married children come for a visit, some "veg" out and take a vacation from their adult roles when Mom and Dad are there to take care of them. In some respects they won’t fully appreciate parental sacrifices until they have raised teenagers of their own.

Prior to 40 or 50 years ago, young people were mature for adult responsibilities in the late teens or early twenties. They were getting married, setting up households, having children and taking responsibility. Nowadays, the amount of emotional and financial support young people need to educate themselves also prolongs their adolescent attitudes well into their twenties.

Even mature adult children can have setbacks. There are times when adult children need help and it is not because they are immature. Robert Frost wrote, "Home is a place when you have to be there, they have to take you in." A little extra help from parents doesn’t compromise their integrity or status as responsible human beings.

Are they grown up yet? What are the signs that your young son or daughter "gets it" when it comes to understanding that you have lives with needs and goals in addition to your children’s comfort and well-being?

- When they put gas in the car after they have borrowed it.

- When they even recognize that it is their responsibility to put gas in the car if they had the money.

- When they pay their own bills.

- When they pay for their own long distance phone calls.

- When they pick up after themselves, clean up their own messes, offer to fix their own meals, do their own laundry, make their own beds and leave the bathroom clean.

- When they pitch in to cook or clean up after a meals.

- When they remember your birthday and special occasions with phone calls or gifts.

- When they stop bossing their younger brothers and sisters and relinquish any "assistant" parental concerns about their siblings' behavior.

- When they pay their own car insurance.

- When they ask how you feel and are genuinely interested.

- When they care about not putting you out.

- When they pay back money they owe or return something they borrowed.

- When they say "thank you" for little courtesies and considerations.

- When they finally take possession of their own keepsakes, books and possessions.

- When it dawns on them that the things on this list are their responsibility.

An ounce of prevention. Parents can insist on responsible behavior, assert their rights, and expect basic courtesy while children are still in their teen years.

Another thing - hard to do - is not to indulge children or give them too much as they are growing up. They need to earn some of their expense money themselves. They need to learn the value of money and to pay as they go. It is unfortunate when young people develop a taste for the parents’ standard of living but are not prepared to shoulder the responsibilities of adult life.

Rewards. It may take a while but the joys and rewards of parenting come into full bloom with these delightful adult/adult relationships. These relationships are based around friendship and love instead of meeting child like needs.

Some young adults might ask, "What about needy, demanding, intrusive parents who won’t let go?" Yes, there are such parents, but that is another story.