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18 And Counting

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Many news stories in recent years have highlighted how long young people are taking to achieve adult milestones. As my older son and many of his friends have hit the age of 18, I’ve had a front row seat to this reality.

In the weeks leading up to my son’s birthday, I thought about what things were like back when I turned 18. My parents, and others of their generation, generally expected behaviors that signified adulthood.

Once a person came of age, she needed to meet certain standards: to work, pay rent (if not in college), pay for her own car, and at least contribute toward car insurance. “Welcome to adulthood!” I can still hear my mother say. Nobody reminded me about my college application deadlines, and I had no electronic gadgets to alert me about my work or sports schedules.

Today’s older teens, it seems, are far less eager to jump into the sea of adult responsibility. Few of my son’s friends have part-time jobs. Those who have cars generally had them given or leased for them; their gas consumption is lumped into one big monthly “family” bill. Their phones are also part of a “family” plan. And, as offspring of involved (or helicopter) parents, they have little need for alarm clocks or planners because their moms basically manage their schedules for them.

Then there is the life-skills department. My husband and I have been successful in instilling some sense of financial responsibility and independence in our son. But I must take the initiative in supporting his late-blooming interest in things like doing laundry, cooking for himself, making his own dental and medical appointments, and not allowing his room to become a toxic waste dump.

After years of taking an “I can do it faster, so I’ve got this” approach to such aspects of childrearing, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years regretting that approach—and have attempted a course correction that has been painful for all involved.

This is not an original observation on my part. Robert Epstein, founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts, has studied how American culture promoted the gradual infantilization of young people. He traced the roots of this trend back to the late 1800s.

Epstein writes that parents treating their adolescents like children has resulted in their acting more like children. Such adolescents also spend less time with adults and more time alone or with their peers. Epstein suggests that as each generation lowers its expectations of its young adults, the bar for their own aspirations falls.

In short, when we expect less from our young people, that’s what they think we want from them, and that’s what they give. Adolescents need to be allowed to face adult challenges in order to nurture their ability to actually be adults. This cannot happen when parents micromanage every aspect of their teens’ lives.

This lengthening of adolescence is not unique to my son’s circle, nor does it seem to be a phase that is winding down. Our society seems to be collectively encouraging this extension of childhood. Where once young people rushed to find post-high school or college employment to get their own benefits, the Affordable Care Act (signed into law in 2010) required insurance providers to offer dependent coverage until age 26. Many parents of college-aged children considered this a victory, as relatively few recent graduates can secure a job that provides, or enables employees to purchase, health and dental benefits.

Marriage has gradually become less desirable to young adults, and some researchers contend that it can—at least partially—be traced to parents’ tendency to overschedule our children, eliminating opportunities for free play with other nearby children. Those who don’t get chances to develop social skills within mixed peer groups as children are less likely to date as teenagers. Those who don’t develop relationship skills as teenagers are likely to marry later as adults—if at all. (Let’s not even get started on the recent trend among pediatric psychologists to label the years from 18 to 25 as “late adolescence.”)

Turning 18 still comes with its share of life changes—most of them legal. These teens can commit to military service, vote, be tried as adults for felonies, buy lottery tickets, keep their medical records out of their parents’ hands, and marry. But it’s getting harder and harder to find 18-year-olds, or even 25-year-olds, who really feel like they are the adults we think we were at those ages.

I recently asked several of my son’s friends what they were most looking forward to as their 18th birthday approached. Most said something along the lines of “full driving privileges.” Some expressed concern about how their age would be viewed in a court of law—their parents having warned them how seemingly minor offenses become much less minor after an 18th birthday.

Talking to other parents of teenagers and perusing the websites of various psychological journals, it’s clear that there is lots of blame to go around with little in the form of solutions for changing course. Now that my own son is 18, I can only hope that I have gotten out of his way enough for him to have developed some self-confidence and—perhaps one day —maturity.



Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.

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