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How Do You Really Know When You’re An Adult?

The journey into adulthood may take you "Into the Woods"

What are the ways in which you define “adult”? Do you feel that it’s someone who has settled down with a family? Perhaps you consider people adults when they reach a particular age, such as 18, 21, or 30. In any case, it’s likely that you have some sense of identity that provides you with the clues to your status as a kid or adult. However, everyone has a different way of defining that critical status.

It’s possible that you know at one level that you’re an adult, but at another level, still feel like you’re not there yet. You may be the “baby” of the family who’s always felt that the older kids are the ones with responsibilities. Though you hold a job, perhaps even have a family of your own, and support yourself (and that family) financially, you can’t quite grasp that adult identity.

Occasionally, outside factors or events serve to contribute to the feeling of having become an adult. Perhaps you’re the one at the holidays who now dons the Santa suit and plays out the role taken by your father of delighting the children with a Christmas Eve visit. As you look at the family gathered around you, and listen to the squeals of laughter by those tiny tots in the room, you become powerfully aware in that instant of having become a family elder.

The theme of gaining self-knowledge is behind the musical, now a new musical movie sensation, Into the Woods. Some may see Freudian themes in this allegorical tale of a baker finding his way “into the woods” where he must confront the “giant.” The “woods” becomes the unconscious, and the “giant” a mother-figure (with a “giant breast”). The baker’s job is to organize a search for the ingredients the witch needs to reverse the curse on his home, a curse that included making that home “a barren one.” The baker’s wife regards him as too inept to pull this off.

However, “in the woods,” the baker becomes a different man whose wife sings: “You've changed. You're daring. You're different in the woods. More sure. More sharing. You're getting us through the woods. If you could see- You're not the man who started, And much more openhearted than I knew you to be.” By the end of the movie, after his wife is killed by the giant, the baker transforms once again, accepting the role of father rather than running from his family, as his own father had done.

From this description, you can understand that there’s more to this musical than traditional Freudian themes of an unconscious dominated by motives toward sex and aggression. In fact, each of the main characters undergoes a transformation “in the woods” as they wrestle with their own demons. A better theoretical approach comes from the Jungian tradition, in which our unconscious is dominated by a variety of archetypal themes.

As explained in an article by the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Ace G. Pilkington, composer Stephen Sondheim built Jungian themes into the musical. Jung himself regarded fairy tales as centering on what he called “archetypes” involving such characters as heroes (the princes), tricksters (the wolf), and evil (the giant). However, it’s the woods themselves that serve as the main transformative agent. As people explore the woods, they explore their own underlying identities.

Jung talked about the process of individuation as reflecting the transition to maturity. The musical ends with the song “No One is Alone,” in which Cinderella (who has been mourning her mother) observes that “sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.” She and the baker go on to note that “Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.” It’s a powerful moment in which both recognize the complexities of life even while they assure themselves “Things will come out right. We will make it so.”

Although I knew the musical well before seeing the movie, I was struck anew by the themes of personal transition and self-understanding that it conveys. People can only reach adulthood, according both to Jung and Sondheim, when they delve into their own psyches and wrestle with the issues that are keeping them from becoming whole, mature, and integrated.

Interestingly, a series of articles appearing recently in the New York Times questioned whether the Millennial generation, now reaching its 30s, is better off delaying adulthood. Some believe that they’re immature narcissists who, like Peter Pan will “never grow up.” However, an alternative is that the economy is preventing the current twenty- and thirty-somethings from acquiring the usual badges of adulthood by buying a home and having children.

We may need a new definition of adulthood that will apply to the Millennial generation. It won’t be based on the outward trappings of socially-acquired status, but on the inner recognition of having gained self-understanding and a sense of purpose. They may marry later, but they’re also less likely to divorce than were their parents’ generation. This is particularly so for college grads, but in general, there’s a sense that people are marrying their soul mates rather than marrying because everyone else is doing so.

University of Western Ontario James Côté (2014) took on the concept of “emerging adulthood” (Arnett, 2000), arguing that despite the wide popular acceptance it’s gained, is inaccurate. The original concept of emerging adulthood is that young people delay their true movement into adulthood until the age of 30. The delay into adulthood, Arnett argues, is occurring across all social classes.

Côté maintains, in contrast, that only some- notably the affluent and the college-educated- who have the luxury of being able to put off the transition into adulthood until their late 20s and early 30s. Moreover, by designating emerging adulthood as a universal stages, Côté suggests that policymakers can now justify excluding young people from the work force and that policies are needed to support youth in need. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in the idea that young people can’t, and therefore shouldn’t, be supported as they move into adulthood.

Returning to the question of when you, or those you know, officially enter adult status, we can see that it’s a complicated issue. We can turn to psychology for some of the answers, particularly by looking at the process of identity development as informed by the theory of Erik Erikson. It may be that we don’t truly know ourselves until we have explored our own personal woods, realizing that as we grow older others “leave us” to be the ones in charge, and that life is full of gray areas. These may be the steps that send us on our way to finding a sense of fulfillment and exploring the new pathways that life provides.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology,health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2014


Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.5.469

Côté, J. E. (2014). The dangerous myth of emerging adulthood: An evidence-based critique of a flawed developmental theory. Applied Developmental Science, 18(4), 177-188. doi:10.1080/10888691.2014.954451

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