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Are We Scaring Kids Off Of Adulthood?

A friend is fretting about her 22-year-old son, who is living at home and, she fears, not getting it together.

This is a family with plenty of dough. The boy is well-educated and has been well cared for, despite some dysfunctional family fun, which few of us escape in this world. My friend complains that he’s lazy and over-entitled. He hasn’t been knocking himself out to find a job, and he’s drinking too much.

What’s a mother to do? she asked me, wondering if research might hold some answers.

Is tough love the answer? Is this a predictable developmental stage? Were we all like that at 22? When did we finally grow up?

I’ve been hearing lots about boomerang kids, who are of an age to be independent but can’t seem to get out there and do it. Of course, the lousy economy and unemployment rate don’t help and can’t be downplayed. But is there something more?

Don’t you wish I were about to give you the answers? I’m not and can’t. But here’s some food for thought.

I looked around at research into “emerging adulthood,” which psychologists and social scientists think may be a distinct phase of development, and which the media has dubbed “adultulescence.” (Insert eye-roll.) A lot of what I found relates to substance abuse and antisocial behavior, which are certainly problematic, but more dire than the mostly irritating (with the exception of drinking-to-barfing on occasion) behaviors that many parents of young adults get to enjoy.

However, I was drawn into one interesting book chapter from 2007, titled “The New Adulthood? The Transition To Adulthood From The Perspective Of Transitioning Young Adults.”  For this, researchers talked to real, live emerging adults in St. Paul, Minn., with various backgrounds and in various circumstances, from single moms on welfare, to Hmong immigrants reaching for the American dream, to young lawyers on the rise.

Not all the young people the researchers talked to felt like adults and those who did, the researchers noted, tied that feeling not to an internal feeling of maturity, but to a life situation, such paying bills or having children. A couple felt like adults for a while, but then felt like kids again when circumstances such as divorce found them back in their parents’ home.

But one particularly interesting aspect of the interviews, to me, was the ambivalence these young people felt towards the idea of becoming adults. While they felt love, respect, and connection with their parents, they didn’t want to be adults like their parents.

“These young people viewed the conventional notion of adulthood as being too settled, too serious, too stoic, and unwilling or unable to enjoy life,” the authors wrote.


I grew up in a Bohemian household, where artistic endeavors were encouraged and nurtured. My parent both made their livings in creative fields. I don’t recall fearing adulthood or even thinking much about it. In some ways, this was detrimental to my long-term well being. I learned nothing about handling money except that you should hang onto it when you have it because you never know when you’ll get more. I didn’t attend college at the traditional age because my parents didn’t consider it important and imparted that attitude to me. I started working right out of high school, got my own apartment at 19. At 22, I moved 1,500 miles from home, by myself, to a city where I knew no one and had no job, and established a new life.

I never gave much thought to whether I was an adult or not. I just lived my life. It’s turning out to be a good life. It has ups and downs, of course, and I wish I’d learned something about earning real money, but I have love and food and a roof over my head. And a dog. Do I feel like an adult? I’m 53 years old so I guess so, but my version of an adult, which some would consider arrested adolescence. I have no kids, I still stay up too late at clubs, I’m still chasing dreams. I’m settled and responsible, but I haven’t given up on some of the same kind of fun I had at 22 (which never included drinking until I barfed).

So here’s what I wonder: Are we—adults–presenting a grim view of adulthood to young people? Is the pressure young people feel to succeed, to accomplish, to purchase, to procreate, to settle down and make something of themselves, having the opposite from our intended effect?

Does the picture we paint of adulthood look like all work and no play? When grown men dress like five-year-olds and grown women cram into clothes for teenage girls, does our worship of youth culture tell kids that being adult=being irrelevant? (And do teenage girls think that dressing like adult hoochie mamas makes them adults?) Have we convinced our youth that the party ends when adulthood begins?

Sure, paying bills and taxes is no one’s idea of a good time. But in emphasizing the responsibilities of adulthood, have we presented a bleak picture of life after 18? And if so, is it any wonder that kids want to prolong adolescence as long as possible?

My way wasn’t the right way–a little more adulthood a little sooner might have been helpful. But something between, perhaps. Surely there is some fun to adulthood that kids should hear about, that might inspire those who are paralyzed them to get out there and grow up.

Or maybe you have given your kids some other message about adulthood that might make them want to avoid it.


Are We Scaring Kids Off Of Adulthood?

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2012). Are We Scaring Kids Off Of Adulthood?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Jan 2012
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