The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We are sending kids the wrong message about adulthood. Here’s what needs to change.

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My 22-year-old daughter had an adult moment recently. A graduate student with an internship, she recently was seeing a client, who, at the end of their meeting, called her Ms. Walters and asked for her business card. “I think I’m an adult,” she texted me.

There are so many ways — little and big — that we mark our kids’ passage to adulthood. When I was in the process of becoming an adult, it seemed like getting married was one marker, though at the time I wasn’t thinking, “Now I’m an adult.” I was thinking that I was so happy to be married to my husband.

Then I had my first baby — the now 22-year-old — and I was really an adult. Within just a few years I had a mortgage and two babies. It’s what people did. I never thought about it much, at least not consciously. I was just living my life. Becoming an adult — didn’t that just … happen? Or was it more complicated than that?

These days it feels like we shift our young people ever so gradually and tenderly toward adulthood that they can barely feel themselves doing it. There are books everywhere teaching children how to become adults, or telling us to teach them how to do it. It never dawned on me that I would need to learn to teach my child to become an adult. Doesn’t it just happen naturally at some point? Didn’t we celebrate our child’s every birthday not only with cake and candles, but also with the idea that becoming a year older was something to mark?

I feel like not so much. Many of us send our children the message that being an adult is bad. That being an adult is too hard. That you’re better off not being an adult. And what we get in return is a lot of kids who, well, don’t turn into adults.

We all know them — the kids who don’t make plans out of high school and then don’t follow any particular path. They take a college course and drop out. They don’t work. They sit around the house a lot. Maybe they go to college, but they don’t get a job after college; perhaps they avoid looking for a job altogether. Maybe their four-year degree is stretching into six or seven years. They’re in their 20s, closing in on 30, and still living at home, under- or unemployed, not in school, with no direction. Their parents cook their meals, do their laundry and help them function in their daily lives.

What have we taught them? Have we given them the impression that adulthood is not worth looking forward to?

I see it all the time on Facebook. There are memes from well-meaning friends about wanting to be children again themselves (they seem to forget that when you’re a kid, you don’t get the adult brain to deal with simple kid stuff). Friends lament that their teens don’t know how easy they have it (that one is really off — a teenager is perhaps the hardest thing one could ever be).

When I see these memes and lamentations, I want to say — and sometimes do — that contrary to what my friends are saying, adulthood is great. It is liberating. You can decide what you want to do and how and when you want to do it. You don’t even need to know why you want to do something before you actually do it.

My husband and I don’t have all the answers, and I am quick to say we got very lucky with our kids. But we did try to impress upon them when they were growing up that being an adult is something worth striving for. We taught them that it’s fun to make decisions and that being in control of your life is a source of pride and excitement. My older daughter spent all of her senior year of college applying to graduate schools. It was hard. She had interviews and essays and deadlines on top of her coursework and her job. But then she landed free graduate school and a paid internship and now she’s working and studying upward of 50 or 60 hours a week. That’s adulthood. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.

Our younger daughter spent all of last year applying to colleges. She had three Advanced Placement classes and a job. It was hard. But she got accepted at eight schools, picked one and she’s there now learning more about being an adult. She’s having a great time but working really hard in her classes while she negotiates daily life. Those are not bad things. Those are good things.

It’s not bad to be financially independent. It’s not bad to live in a tiny apartment and eat spaghetti most nights while watching TV because you don’t have any money to go out. It’s not bad to drive a 10-year-old car and hope that it lasts another few months. It’s not bad to have to get up with an alarm, or study for a test in a subject you don’t know much about, or learn to live with people you might never normally have a reason to be around, or share a bathroom with 10 other people at the end of the hallway. It’s not bad to set goals and then go after them, no matter how hard it may seem to reach them. These are good things.

Being an adult is good. Let’s not only keep teaching our kids that. Let’s believe it ourselves.

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, and the Making Caring Common Project have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. (Video: The Washington Post)

Judy Mollen Walters is the author of three novels. Her essays and blog posts have appeared at Writer Unboxed, Beyond the Margins, Kveller and the Tablet. She is the mother of two girls and lives in New Jersey. Find her online at

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