When I became an adult, around 1990, “adulting” had not yet been coined as a verb. One by one, though, starting in 2013 and continuing into last year, each of our four children turned 18 and entered the legal sphere of adulthood. And at the same time, the widespread use of “to adult” as a verb has caught on.
Anyone who has either lived through young adulthood themselves or who has parented young adults understands that adulthood does not descend suddenly on a person on their 18th or 21st birthday. Instead, adulthood comes gradually, at different rates for different people. Sometimes adulthood is thrust upon us, and sometimes, we intentionally make choices to live in a more adult manner.
I love the term “adulting” because it’s active, not static — it’s something we do, not something we are. All four of our somewhat grown-up kids occasionally send us photos of good adulting moments — a healthy stir fry vegetable dinner, a weekend night alone with a laptop and term paper, a first flight unaccompanied by a parent.
But all of our kids have also had moments where they’ve missed hitting the basic standards of adulting. These we are less likely to find out about in real time, and more likely to learn about later — sometimes from their siblings who let a story slip about a recent near-disaster. Twice in the last few months, we’ve received calls from young adult children asking us if we could possibly give them a ride to where their cars had been towed. It’s not quite adulting to believe that “No Parking” is more of a suggestion than a law. “Doesn’t he know we watch ‘Ozark’ Monday nights?” Bill said to me as we drove to where our son was stranded. “I thought we were done with this phase.”
There is a significant difference between a young adult still wrapping up the teen years and one who is out of college, with a job and health insurance. We have both versions. After a recent restless night worrying about our daughter, legally an adult but still a teen, Bill felt he had received a message from God on the approach we needed to take with her. “I had this image that felt very clear,” he told me when we woke up. “An icy sidewalk and salt being sprinkled over it. We need to be the salt. We don’t choose the path or build the sidewalk, or even walk alongside her all the time. But when we can, we sprinkle the salt.”
Bill’s image brought me comfort for two reasons — first, because it acknowledged that adulthood is slippery. While some like to characterize the late teens and 20s as a carefree time, the sidewalk to full adulthood is slick with choices and challenges that can cause even the most sure-footed to skid off the path. Secondly, Bill’s image gave me a constructive task to do for my own young adult. I can sprinkle salt — salt never melts all the ice on a given patch of sidewalk, rather it melts small pockets and allows the walkers to get a little traction so they are less likely to slip. Traction sounded like a good plan for the given situation.
The tricky thing about adulting is that it just keeps going. Adulting, when done right, is often the shelving of immediate personal satisfaction in favor of something that will be a healthier or better choice long term, either for the person himself or herself, or for the greater community. Adulting is paying the bills before buying the treat; it’s putting down TikTok and hitting the weight room; it’s showing up on time without anyone reminding you. I want my children to learn all these things and do them well and consistently.
But I also want them to know that when adulting is done right, there is joy and fun, and the best parts of childhood. Adulting well includes taking the time to get together with the friends who make you laugh so hard your stomach aches. Part of adulting is remembering how to play and when to take a moment to walk away from your responsibilities, knowing they’ll be there for you when you get back from the kickball game. Adulting is finally not caring what you look like when you dance and how you sound when you sing. Adulting is realizing that being in nature and taking in the mountains, lakes and forests is the ultimate recess time.
Mostly though, adulting is recognizing that the sidewalk is icy for everyone, no matter their age, and that our greatest call is to be salt for others.
Because we all need a little traction.