How do you know when you have become an adult?
Not an easy question. It’s silly of me to think that I’ve cracked it. But I have a strong intuition about it anyway.
Adulthood is a concept that I can’t map to an age, physical maturity, or initiation ritual. It seems to work on a spectrum. There is, however, a key that you can use to map your place on that spectrum.
That key is a certain moment. It’s the moment that you no longer feel the need to rebel against your parents.
Let me explain.
The world’s most frightening thing is a 30 year-old who still feels the need to rebel against Mom and Dad.
The extent to which you have failed to leave childhood is directly proportional to your need to rebel against parental authority.
“Rebellion” always springs up in an attempt to get back at parents for exercising authority. It’s usually some kind of behavior or attitude that really gets across “I resent you and don’t accept your rules, man,” whether in smoking or engaging in screaming matches or even just complaining and being jaded on your family trip to Europe (that last one was me).
Your “rebellion” isn’t much of a revolution. It may not accept the rightness of parental authority, but it accepts the premise that parents ultimately have control of what you can and can’t do.
Small problem: it’s not a true premise.
There is no point in your development past puberty in which you lack the power to take care of yourself and live your own life. If you chose to live independently of your parents at age 13, you could do it. That age of independence is pretty standard for most of human history, and your ancestors certainly got by in harder times with less.
You have to work hard for your living at 13, and some things will cost you more in time and effort, but there is nothing actually limiting your freedom to live exactly as you wish.
The reality is that you choose to limit your freedom.
You might have good reasons for it. You probably value your parents’ resources and service more than you value the freedom you would get from taking responsibility for your rent costs, your career training, your food, your clothes. That’s fine. It makes sense why many people would choose that bargain. But are you telling yourself the truth about the deal you’re making with your parents when you take their resources?
If you stay at home or stay dependent on your parents and still “rebel” or harbor resentment against them, you’re not being honest about your options. And your rebellion is one that won’t give you an ounce of freedom (though you’ll get plenty of self-righteousness and bitterness).
Your parents are not a totalitarian government. They don’t have overwhelming, unescapable force at their disposal. If you frame your relationship as one in which you need to rebel, you’re giving your parents far more power than they truly have.
Your parents know their power over you is totally dependent on your recognition of their power. They know that your recognition is totally dependent on your own unwillingness to take responsibility for your life and wellbeing. And as long as you’re unwilling to shoulder your responsibility, they’ll be happy to do it for you. They’ll continue to do it for you until you die, but they’ll always be waiting for the moment you become an adult.
They and the rest of the world are waiting for that moment of adulthood – when you choose to create your reality, instead of complaining about the one you’ve asked the world to hand to you. Most authority was made to be replaced, and it only becomes poisonous when you treat it as irreplaceable.
The moment you become an adult is when you stop rebelling against your parents’ authority and realize the authority rested with you the whole time.
When you realize that you are both completely free and completely responsible, your parents become humans instead of the tyrants you imagined them to be. They become potential friends and partners and guides and teachers (“authorities” in the better sense of the word), but they’re not masters you have to resent and resist.
Why fight with someone who can’t get in your way? Why resent anyone who can’t hurt you?
It took me about 19 years to realize all of this. I spent a lot of time and energy in my teenage years on resentment and angry conversations and angry journals and cynicism and condescension and arrogance before I realized that I was holding the keys to my own prison.
It’s astonishing how fast you can release your pent-up resentment against your parents when you get a job you worked for and an apartment you paid for. Rebellion against The Man becomes irrelevant when you create a reality in which The Man plays no deciding role. That’s what I did when I moved to a new city at 18. That was at least one of the moments in which I passed into adulthood. My relationship with my parents had to change dramatically, but it’s now better than ever.
In the end, I’m not saying that achieving harmony with your parents is the measure of adulthood. But I am saying that your antagonism against your version of “The Man” is a direct measure of how powerful they actually are and how weak you really are. Your power relationship with your parents will be the first one you have to change if you want to grow into the next step of being a human.
If you’re still stuck, if you don’t like feeling helpless, I hope your moment comes soon enough. Don’t rebel against authority. It’s already been yours and it’s always been yours.