February 17, 2012 9:53 pm

What does it mean to be a grown-up?

The Shrink & The Sage offer guidance on another modern dilemma

The Sage

When St Paul famously wrote “when I became a man, I put away childish things”, he neglected to specify just what took their place. One answer is suggested by the context in which we are most likely to hear those words today: at a wedding ceremony, as part of the “love never fails” passage in Corinthians. To become an adult is to relinquish freedom, settle down, get a proper career and start a family.

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This image of adulthood is one that is socially reinforced throughout life, so it is no wonder that many who divert from this straightforward path don’t feel like “proper” grown-ups. We also seem to be getting less willing to put away childish things. Despite proper jobs, we relax by reading Harry Potter or firing paint balls or playing computer games.

Even those who tick all the conventional boxes often have the nagging feeling that they’re not as mature as they should be. Perhaps it’s because as we age, we find that the gap between how many years have actually passed and how few seem to have done so grows. When the person inside you seems to be younger than the face in the mirror, we inevitably feel our minds are lagging behind our bodies in maturity.

But what really makes a true adult anyway? Maybe Paul has the answer after all: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” It’s not what you do but how you think that counts. Walking down the aisle is just one way to disown the carefree mindset of youth and embrace responsibility. If you can do those things, you can be broke, single, childless, unemployed and enjoy the odd game of Buckaroo, and yet be far more grown up than a high-achieving, bridge-playing, married father of three who always blames other people and leaves all the family’s major decisions to his wife. No one can be entirely self-sufficient, but as long as you take on board the fact that it’s ultimately up to you now, you’re as grown up as we silly little naked apes can be.

The Shrink

There is an ideal of being grown up that seems to belong to another world, one where the path to maturity was still well signposted. It is about stable work, financial security, marriage, a house, providing for the children. Although many economic and social changes have taken place since that world existed, the ideal still sneaks in among our other values, leading, perhaps inconsistently, to a sense that if we haven’t quite reached that supposed rock of solidity, we haven’t really grown up.

It is an ideal we may have deeply internalised even without consciously endorsing it. It would be an idea to ask ourselves whether we do endorse it. What would you say if I asked you what you’d like to achieve in life? Maybe your answer would be the traditional one. But for many that kind of settled existence would have to battle it out with work satisfaction, flexible lifestyle, travel and all sorts of other things. And, of course, it is for women that the aims of a fulfilled life have changed the most. So if you’re berating yourself for not being a grown-up, you may be forgetting that by failing to live up to that internalised ideal you could well have gained some freedoms your parents didn’t even contemplate.

Anyway, isn’t there also something positive about retaining certain childlike traits? Of course it wouldn’t be good to throw tantrums in the street, or even slam doors instead of communicating. It does seem important to grow up in the sense of learning to make commitments and take responsibility for our life instead of waiting for other people to solve our problems. But that doesn’t have to mean leaving behind the childlike spontaneity and openness to change that we associate with youth, and which can enhance life at any age.

How much of this we need to cultivate is an individual matter. If you have childlike tendencies, perhaps you could work on developing some emotional wisdom. If you incline in the opposite direction, playing more may be the thing for you. Just make sure you are appropriately childlike rather than childish.

To suggest a question for The Shrink & The Sage, please email shrinkandsage@ft.com

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