When Are You an Adult?
Allison James begins her chapter On Being a Child: The Self, the Group and the Category sharing an anecdote in which a twelve year old boy, frustrated by the restrictions of his youthfulness, asked her, “When are you an adult?” James confesses that she did not know how to answer the boy, because achieving adulthood, as many of us nineteen – twenty-two year olds have recently come to understand very personally, is more than simply reaching a certain age. It reminds me of a moderately amusing little quote from Grey’s Anatomy which now exists to be re-pinned on Pinterest and shared on Facebook over and over by 20-somethings and 40-somethings alike who think they’re cute (including, but certainly not limited to my own older sister and mother):
But our silly white-girl humor aside, the point of James’s article actually stems from the concerns of the opposite perspective; of children who don’t yet fear the responsibilities of adulthood, and aspire to the status and privilege that comes with being a “grown-up.” As a musical theatre enthusiast (*ahem*nerd), I thought of a scene in the Golden Age Rogers & Hammerstein musical The King and I, in which King Mongkut finds himself in a “puzzlement,” talking to his oldest son and heir, Prince Chulalongkorn, about the nature of knowledge and kingship. Replace “King” with “an adult,” and it becomes obvious that the concern is not so much singular to a prince attaining the monarchy, but universally to a child attaining adulthood.
Prince: But you must know because you are King [an adult]!
King: Someday you too will be King [an adult] and you too will everything.
Prince: But how do I learn? And when do I know that I know everything?
King: When you are King [an adult].
In the following musical number “A Puzzlement,” King Mongkut wrestles with the fact that, contrary to what he believed when he was a child, he did not automatically gain a perfect black-and-white understanding of the universe, but actually found that “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know, [and] very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago.” And yet, disillusioned as he is, he continues to pass the misconception of adulthood to his naïve child. Why is this?
As James reflects on her encounter with the twelve year old, she muses, “He has no doubt found out, by now, what it means to be an adult. I, on the other hand, am still asking what it means to be a child.”
When I Was a Child, I Spake as a Child…
In his 1977 book What Is a Child?, Nicholas Tucker defined a child essentially as under-developed individual, “lacking the competency of an adult” and requiring coaching in order to correct childish imperfections and attain an adult-level of social and physical maturity. Think 1 Corinthians 13:11.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
While not exactly wrong—a child truly isn’t as competent and self-reliant as an adult—this attitude towards children lends itself to be more harmful to a child’s development into a mature, self-reliant individual by conceptually separating children from the adult world of which they are eventually supposed to be a part. Later theories reject such conceptualization and hold that the uniqueness of children’s biology contextualizes rather than determines the social experiences of children.
The Kiddie Table
The most obvious example of childhood contextualizing a child’s social experience can be found at any large family gathering: the kiddie table. Everyone gathers at Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, and while parents, aunts, and uncles all gather around the “grown up table” with the family china, all cousins from ages two to fifteen are sent to the folding table with plastic, or even paper plates. It’s not at all that children are biologically unfit to sit at the dining room table with the rest of the family; in fact, when it’s just the nuclear family eating together on any week night, the three year old and twelve year old have their own places at the table, but when it’s a large social gathering, they are denied that honor.
I can feel the indignation my eleven year old self suffered to this day. “Are my parents ashamed of me? Do they assume I was going to say something stupid around Aunt Heidi? Why would they think that? I’m a straight-A student, aren’t they proud of me? My seventeen year old sister gets to sit at the grown-up table; do they love her more than me, just because she’s bigger? It’s not my fault I’m still small. I don’t want to sit at the kiddie table. Mikey picks his nose. I don’t deserve to sit at the same table as someone who picks his nose.”
This, among many other factors, meant that as a child, I never identified with the “Peter Pan” desire to never grow up. If we’re honest, I don’t think most children do. The Peter Pan –complex, I guess – is something adults, swamped with the stress of adulthood, project onto children. I wanted to grow up; to be equal to adults in respect and privilege. Which, again, was also most likely the result of how adults, not children, defined childhood and adulthood and established discriminating boundaries between the two.
Size Does Matter
James’s article identifies that one of the first ways children begin to develop a sense of self-consciousness is in the observation, and comparison of their body and others’. They recognize that they are more capable and bigger than infants, and that older, even more capable children are bigger than they. They naturally identify personal progression with physical growth. This idea is perpetuated by the linguistic bias of adults adopting this childish understanding when conversing and counselling children. Children are praised for accomplishments and hailed as “big kids” (think of the jingle, “I’m a big kid now!”), and scolded for “little kid” behavior like crying or refusing to share.
The result? The belief that being small is a failure. That children are imperfect, and will be rewarded when they succeed in becoming bigger. Should children be encouraged to develop mature, capable qualities and skills at an appropriate pace in order to grow up into well-adjusted, responsible adults? Absolutely. But identifying these qualities and skills as either “big” or “small” sets children up for damaging self-consciousness as their developing bodies grow and change at a rate not precisely proportional to their developing selves.