Choosing to Grow Up

Posted on May 27, 2010


(This essay was first published in my local newspaper, way back in 2003.)

Summer is approaching fast, high school graduation time, and another wave of fresh faces is about to slam into the beach. I call it the Great Rude Awakening.

Maybe they’re off to college, where they’ll find that their professors will flunk them without so much as a warning note sent home to Mom and Dad. Or maybe they’re starting a full-time job that will require them to stay sober and get some sleep on Friday nights. Or maybe they’re about to move into their own expensive apartments, with rent due on the first of the month and expensive refrigerators that constantly burn expensive electricity, whether or not they contain food from the expensive supermarket.

For the second year in a row, my wife and I have a daughter among the capped and gowned, and for the second year in a row, we’re worried that our girls are taking their first steps into adulthood with a distorted idea of what it means to be a grown-up.

After so many years of homework, exams, report cards, and living by the bell, the average high school student peers over the fence of graduation and imagines a land of total freedom. No more pencils, no more books, no more chores. Driver’s licenses. Legal entry into bars. Paying jobs. It’s the end of a long and undeserved prison term.

Adults seem to be in control of their lives, free to do whatever they want. And they are. They’re free to make their own choices. They decide what they’re going to do, and how and when they’re going to do it. But there’s a catch: they also have to bear the consequences of those choices. And that’s the invisible wire that trips up so many of us as we hop the fence and scramble across the open field. Our total freedom is riddled with restrictions.

I can choose to not pay the telephone bill. But after a couple of months of that freedom, I no longer have a dial tone. I’m free to spend our grocery money on lottery tickets, but if I linger too long in that financial fantasyland, my family has nothing to eat. I can choose to stay out all night, but when I come home in the morning the lawn still needs to be cut, and the car still needs to be inspected, and the cats still need to be fed. And my wife is probably very upset. No small price to pay.

Sometimes it isn’t even clear that we’re making choices. When you don’t show up for work, you’ve surrendered the option of keeping that job, and given the decision back to your boss, who may or may not put up with your lack of consideration. The trouble seems to start when we focus too heavily on what we want, and forget about the price.

Every time we make a choice, we eliminate the other choices. When we order pancakes for breakfast, we have to let go of our desire for French toast. When we decide to go to India on vacation, we also decide not to go to Ireland or Italy or Indonesia. When we choose to get married, we’re choosing to be with this one person, and not all the others. This seems as though it should be self-evident, but parents of teenagers know it is not. Such decision-making involves sacrifice. It is the giving-up part, I think, that teens have trouble with. But that’s what a choice is  —  this and not that, here and not there, Monday and not Tuesday.

I guess if I could sit down with our two daughters and all the other new graduates and actually get them to listen, I’d try to help them understand this one idea: adulthood is not defined by drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, having sex, or disappearing for days at a time. You’re an adult when you take responsibility for your choices and your actions. If you still look around for help every time you have a problem or feel inconvenienced or can’t get what you want, you’re not there yet. Try to make choices you’re willing to live with. And then deal with the consequences of those choices, even when you make mistakes. Learn to endure, even when things seem unbearable. Stand on your own two grown-up feet.

You can’t avoid the Great Rude Awakening, but you have the ability to soften the landing. If you’re lucky, nobody else will do it for you.