adulthood have you got there yet?

There are experts on children and experts on 'the adolescent', but there are no experts on what it means to be an adult. In today's society, the children emulate the grown-ups and the grown-ups want to be like the children. So, asks Adam Phillips, What is an adult? Photograph by Martin Morrell

Adam Phillips
Friday 13 September 1996 23:02

Adulthood is the only stage in the so-called human life-cycle that has not been turned into a medical, or a psychological, or a sociological specialisation. The advantage of this, you might conclude, is that adults are free to invent themselves, unhampered by authoritative accounts of what they should be like. The reality, however, seems to be a widespread uncertainty. Adults, so eager to give us comprehensive accounts of every area of a child's life (its sexuality, emotional needs, developmental milestones) have been, in recent years, virtually unable to provide compelling or persuasive accounts of themselves - stories, that is to say, about the advantages of growing up, rather than the losses entailed.

Ask anyone today for the definition of a child, or of what is politely (and misleadingly) called a "young adult", and you will almost certainly be offered a recognisable account. But to ask the question "What is an adult?" seems to put everyone at a disadvantage.

The generation born before the First World War would be able to provide some answers: adults were people, say, who got married, who could control their children, who didn't want to be dependent on the state, who knew the difference between right and wrong. Today, the question produces panic-stricken jargon: mutterings about family values, for instance, or self-sufficiency. It is dismaying to discover that we have no real words for our own ideals.

Defining adulthood is, after all, a question about what there is to praise, or admire, or emulate about the grown-ups. If the grown-ups themselves can't answer it, can't give a genuinely inspiring account of what they value, of what makes them different from children, then where does that leave the children? Children, still, unlike many adolescents, aspire to be like the grown-ups; but the grown-ups, more and more often it seems, want to be like the children. Psychobabble has introduced us to our so- called "inner child", with the consequence that many people seem convinced that the most loveable thing about them is their naivety or their vulnerability. The problem is that, if we make childhood our ideal, we rob our children and ourselves of a future.

Clearly, at its best, an adult's capacity to identify with the child makes it possible for him or her to be a good parent. But the adult's more or less covert wish to be a child himself creates, in effect, a family of siblings. There are many remarkable things about children, but the one thing children cannot do is bring themselves up. Adults are more competent than children at nurturing children, partly because they were once children themselves.

It is this, along with a more developed sexual potential, that is the fundamental difference between adults and children. When adults believe, or live as if, they are "really" children, or that the childlike parts of themselves are the most valuable, they are conveying that adulthood is without its own distinctive pleasures: sexual freedom, for example, or earning money, or the possibility of being able to speak freely without fear of punishment. And, by communicating this, they give a puzzling signal to the children not to grow up. Adults who only want to be children are telling their children that they have no future or, at least, no future worth wanting.

In families where the parents behave like siblings, the risk is that the real children will feel too powerful, too uncontained, and so begin to be frightened of their own feelings. The parent who cannot bear being hated by his child, for example, will make the child feel that his childish hatred is excessively destructive, and that getting bigger will only make him even more dangerous. The parent who can deal firmly, even sometimes blithely, with his child's most powerful feelings will give the child confidence in both his own and other people's resilience.

Similarly, the parent who can enjoy his child's sexuality, but who also can set apt and proper limits to it, communicates the sense that there are both real pleasures to be had here and now, and further pleasures in store. That there is something to look forward to.

From the child's point of view, adulthood is about what there is to look forward to. For the child, every adult is a model for a future state of being, a possible way of living. Adults, in other words, are people who keep the child's future open. If there are no adults - no one actually enthusiastic about being in that position - then it is impossible for the children to be children.

There seem to be three main reasons now why adulthood has become like a job that nobody wants. The first is economic. For most people, adulthood either means no work or work they wouldn't choose to do. And being successful means becoming versions of themselves they can't admire (isolated, over- anxious, ruthlessly competitive, bored). If earning money is a distinguishing trait of adulthood, then we may need more compelling pictures of successful money-making than we currently have, more of a sense of adults as people not merely hypnotised by wealth. There are more interesting kinds of greed than the greed for money. If adulthood is defined by wealth, then the repertoire of other possible good lives seems to disappear.

The second reason that adulthood has come to seem so unenticing has to do with child-rearing. Being an adult in the family means, inevitably, becoming a killjoy and an unofficial member of the police force - both to yourself and to your children. Adulthood, in the family, threatens to turn us into versions of ourselves - bossy, mean, moralistic, violent - that we rightly fear, and yet the project of bringing up children inevitably entails frustrating yourself and your children and taking the consequences of that.

The third reason we may prefer to mock grown-ups is to do with our fear of freedom. Adults, obviously, are much more in a position to define themselves - to invent their own lives - than children are. Children have un-chosen parents, for example, and often un-chosen siblings. As adults we are able, to a large extent, to choose our own company. Adults can leave relationships; children are the people who cannot leave. To resist adulthood is to prefer to live under someone else's description of you, to live in someone else's project for you, as children have to do. The idea of making one's own life can seem too daunting.

It is worth wondering what would have to happen - what we would have to do - to make the project of adulthood interesting again. Attempting to define adulthood is, at least, a good place to start.

A working version of adulthood - a blueprint of possible ideals - might include:

the wish to speak one's own mind without fear of punishment;

a belief in the possibility of, and the freedom to pursue, satisfying sexual experiences;

the courage to follow one's curiosity;

the capacity to be alone;

the valuing of risk and conflict;

an interest in one's own complexity, and in thinking one's own thoughts;

the ability to tolerate, but not necessarily act upon, the full range of one's feelings, whatever they happen to be;

a determined willingness not to humiliate people, and to protect the things and people one values most;

being impressed by surprises.

Perhaps, above all, adulthood has to include the unwillingness to completely agree with anyone else's definition of what it is to be an adult. But without any good definitions available, we have nothing even to disagree with.

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