What Does It Mean to Grow Up?
We lose — and retain — all the wrong traits from childhood.
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When I was seven, my uncle once asked me what my favorite thing to do was. I answered honestly and without guile, as all kids do. “My favorite thing is thinking,” I said. He cackled in my face, finding my response as adorable as it was absurdly hilarious. I didn’t see what was so funny about it. I still don’t. I was the sort of child you could stick alone in an empty room, and would occupy myself for hours on end with nothing but my thoughts, sometimes sitting quietly, more often pacing. 28 years later, I still haven’t “grown out of” this kids-do-the-darndest-things habit.
That moment was perhaps the earliest one I can recall that interested me in the question “What does it mean to grow up?” What is it that makes someone an adult, beyond the simple fact of their chronological age? What makes one mature or immature? What are the mental attributes characteristic of adulthood that children lack? What are the childish traits adults are expected to have outgrown? The more I’ve pondered this over the years, the more convinced I have become that we don’t know how to grow up. This isn’t a “Kids these days!” critique exclusively focused on Millennials and Gen Z. My observations are true of all living generations, likely reaching back even further.
Whatever it is we think we’re doing when we grow up, we’re doing it all wrong. We “grow out” of childhood’s most valuable traits that we should have held onto, while retaining into adulthood many of those we ought to have grown past. During our journey to adulthood, we unlearn our creativity, imagination, wonder, open-mindedness, curiosity, authenticity, and lack of prejudice. Meanwhile, we too often hold onto the impatience, impulsiveness, lack of discipline, over-indulgence, low attention span, improvidence, irresponsibility, recklessness, groundless certainties, and over-emotionality from childhood. How perfectly backward.
Children are natural artists, poets, philosophers, explorers, and scientists. They push boundaries, independently discover truths about the world, express themselves creatively, ask deep questions, and wonder about how and why things are the way they are. Kids are unpretentious, unselfconscious about being silly, unafraid to be themselves. Where do things go wrong? Society, the education system, and “adults” beat these qualities out of children. There’s no grand conspiracy here, and I’m not about to start quoting Orwell to you. It’s just laziness and inertia. It’s easier to tell a kid to sit down and shut up than it is to engage them, or give them the space to explore. It’s easier to manage people who are predictable, boring, and conformist — easier to keep track of them, keep them safe, and hold down some semblance of order. It’s simply the path of least resistance.
Adults assure kids out of one side of their mouths that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and yet children’s most penetrating, existential, metaphysical questions are consistently treated as pointless, impractical, and annoying. Children effortlessly absorb such cues. Sure, adolescence brings its rebelliousness, but coming on the heels of an early childhood steeped in anti-intellectualism, such teenage rebellion has a hollowness to it. They merely react to what they see around them, as though driven by a compulsion they don’t understand and have been taught by example not to introspect.
Add to this the momentum of thousands of years of tradition, from the days when survival was a constant struggle, time was short, and there was little occasion for the life of the mind. Such things were frivolities, luxuries only small children, too young to work the fields or apprentice in the workshop, were afforded. There is a reason, after all, that most of the great thinkers throughout history have been men and women of means, often of the leisure class. No one else had the free time, resources, education, and peace of mind to pick their heads up high enough to dream in the clouds.
In today’s developed world, however, all but those in the most dire straits have opportunities and means our ancestors could hardly imagine. But monkey see, monkey do. We replicate most of what we experience in our own lives. Whatever outward complaints we might make, we tend to assume, unless we were overtly abused in some way, that the way we were raised, socialized, or educated is the right way to go about it — and so we continue the traditions. For the most part, those who seriously question this tend to be those with the least power to change anything — children. And by the time they’re adults “Why?” and “What if?” becomes “That’s just the way it is.”
The political, economic, and technological advances of the past hundred and fifty years have allowed humans by the billions to live creative and intellectual lives once reserved for royalty and the idle rich. They have also brought with them a panoply of decadent temptations. We squander this relatively new privilege to integrate the most useful traits of childhood into our adult minds, while succumbing to unmoderated material over-indulgence, becoming a species of soft, bovine man-babies.
Adults have the benefit of a fully-formed frontal cortex — the region of the brain just behind the forehead that doesn’t finish developing until about age 25 — which governs all of the unhelpful childhood traits previously listed. Yet we adults don’t even come close to fully taking advantage of this brainpower. We have the worst of both worlds, when we might have the best instead. The creative, curious, unbounded mind of a child, tempered with the executive functions of a fully-harnessed frontal cortex, and the benefit of years of knowledge, hindsight, and life experience, would be a mind primed for wisdom and self-actualization. There is tremendous untapped human potential just waiting to be unleashed. We are living through an era of great social change. Rethinking adulthood and what it means to grow up is a conversation whose time has come.
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