A new benchmark for defining adulthood: leaving the family cell phone plan

In a few weeks from now, the annual synagogue cycle for reading the Torah or five books of Moses begins anew with the creation of the story of man and woman (Genesis 1-2). Many years ago, I remember a student of mine asking, “was Adam created as a child or as an adult?” I don’t remember my answer, but that question has remained with me and taken on more consequential meaning with a little rewording. So I’d like to reframe the question in more contemporary terms and ask you: when does a child become an adult in our society today?

I really would love to hear your comments on Facebook, but before you answer, please consider the following information:

  • Typically, pediatricians will see their patients through the college years.
  • Colleges routinely offer parent orientation programs on campuses in which their children will be enrolled, recognizing that college students are more dependent upon their parents than in the past. Therefore, college administrators also feel a need to prepare parents for their child’s campus experience.
  • The consensus among neuroscientists and those in related professions is that a child’s brain does not fully develop into an adult brain until approximately age 25.

Not long ago, there were some well-defined markers for adulthood: voting in elections (age), consuming alcohol at a legal age (between the ages of 18 and 21) and being eligible to serve in the military without parental consent (age 18). But a recent United States Census Bureau Report (“The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975–2016, issued April 2017”), states that “In prior gen­erations, young adults were expected to have finished school, found a job, and set up their own household during their 20s—most often with their spouse and with a child soon to follow. What was once ubiquitous during their 20s is now not commonplace until their 30s.”

Whether because of a deeper understanding of neurology and biochemistry, a change in societal values, economic instability – or some combination of these factors – the road from adolescence to adult maturity is longer for Millenials than it was for Baby Boomers.

So, “When does adulthood begin?” Here is my answer: when a child leaves the family cell phone plan. A few years ago, I made this remark offhandedly in jest when I was with some friends. But as I begin to float this definition more intentionally, the more smiles, nodding of heads in agreement and sighs of resignation I received from understanding peers. Of course, we are those same understanding parents who did not set and hold clear boundaries about when our children needed to sign up for their own cell phone plan, so in fairness to them, we should admit that we created this situation.

While my definition of “adulthood” may be cute, I’m concerned about the negative effects that we Boomer parents have helped to foster among our Millenial children by making it easier for them to remain connected to their devices. We know that as the usage of smart phones has increased, there has been a marked decline in social isolation and empathy. And if you haven’t read the article, “Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation?”  by psychologist Jean M. Twenge (The Atlantic, September 2017 online edition), I encourage you to do so. I don’t think that she’s creating hype when she claims that this dependence upon smart phones has created a mental health crisis among pre-Millenials, whom she names the “iGen,” so we also contributed to a trickledown effect upon Gen Xer’s and their children.

But here’s the good news: we still have an opportunity to frame the discussion about adult maturity through conversation and the behavior that we model. Adult maturity is about empathy, relationships, getting up from the chair to walk a few feet away and converse with a colleague, and understand that it’s up to us to manage how and when we use our smart devices. These challenges will become greater with wider adoption of augmented and virtual reality, so it’s time to start having conversations and changing our own behaviors around the use of iPhones, wearable devices and similar emerging technologies.

In answer to that former student of mine, I would say today that Adam and Eve became adults when they were thrown out of the garden of Eden, which was like being thrown off the family cell plan (allowing for a little poetic license). To me, that symbolized their need to face one another and understand that being in relationship means that people own both mistakes and triumphs and joys and sorrows together. And that is a much deeper way of probing the question about how and when we define adulthood today.

So, please respond: when do you think a child becomes an adult today?

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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