Let's Stop Seeing Age 18 as the Parenting Finish Line, Mmm K?
Let’s Stop Seeing Age 18 as the Parenting Finish Line, Mmm K?
When I was an eighteen-year-old college freshmen, during spring break my friends and I (all females) hitchhiked from a grimy bar in Matamoros, Mexico across the US border in a stranger’s van at 2AM in the morning.
Why??? Because we were eighteen and livin’ the dream! (Translation: we were being naive, risky and incredibly stupid in a drug-cartel-ridden city best known for kidnapping and murder.) And apparently this was our version of “problem solving” when after a few hours of karaoke and dancing around the dirt floor of a bar with some charming locals, we discovered that we were stranded on the wrong side of the border—with no money and no means of transportation back to our hotel in South Padre Island, Texas.
We were also VERY lucky as the driver of the creepy white van who picked us up along a dark road on the outskirts of town must have been a patron saint of foolish college coeds disguised as a nice young man from Texas. He safely drove us home without incident. Disaster averted. (Thank you, God! Seriously, you sent us an angel that night, didn’t you?)
Needless to say, this less-than wise decision was just one example that proved I hadn’t mastered “adulting” at eighteen-years-old. (I still haven’t really mastered adulting, but at least I’m self-aware of it and certainly not hitching rides in stranger’s vans in Mexico.)
Now, as the mom of a son who will turn 18 and head off to college next year, I can’t help but cringe when I hear people say they’re looking forward to parenting being “done” when their kids turn eighteen and leave the nest.
Frankly, it’s just hogwash.
Some things change when kids turn eighteen, but not everything
The idea that kids reach adult maturity at age eighteen has been around a long time. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we’ve established significant legal milestones on the 18th birthday. For instance, when my son turned eighteen:
- I lost all access to his medical records and information
- He can vote (yikes!)
- He can enlist in the military and go fight in a war.
- He can go to “big boy” prison (with serial killers and drug cartels) if he commits a crime.
- He can get his own credit cards—and wreck his credit score for a decade.
- I won’t even be able to attend his course planning sessions at college orientation (a painful fact I learned while ugly-crying on the other side of the adviser’s door at his older sister’s college orientation)
Because of my legal guardianship abruptly ending when my son turns eighteen, it’s easy to feel like the world is has declared this is the final product of the child I raised and that my parenting job has officially ended—like I’ve completed the course and crossed the finish line of the final exam.
Dear imaginary parenting exam proctor: I’m NOT finished yet, and neither is he! Your nerve-wracking call for “Pencils down, hands up” is bogus!
I have two bones of contention to pick with you, and here’s what they are:
- First, an eighteen-year-old’s brain is still developing. (Please continue reading for the real science behind this!)
- Secondly, I’M NOT DONE YET, and I don’t appreciate being told “Parenting is over—here’s your final grade on this project!” (We’ll get to that in a minute.)
News Alert: Brain science agrees with me!
The idea that my eighteen-year-old son has reached adult maturity is plainly ridiculous. Have you met him? He’s a smart, wonderful kid, and I’m so proud of him. He gets good grades, responsibly holds a part-time job, and is a stickler for being prompt. But he also appears consistently incapable of thinking beyond his own needs. (Especially about anything occurring beyond tomorrow.)
I’ve tried my best to teach him all of the important life skills, but there are so many that simply require some more years of practice. (Including failures with consequences we let him deal with, which is a great teaching tool!)
He’s still overwhelmed at the thought of scheduling a series of physical therapy appointments and battling with health insurance claims. on his own. (Yes, I make him do this, as he is legally an adult and I don't have access to his medical records.) His mastery of cooking stops at pancakes, waffles and spaghetti. (Which at this point he'd be happy to live on for every meal.) He's been dong his laundry since 4th grade, but still mixes his lights and darks and doesn’t read garment labels. (Yup, he was the varsity baseball pitcher in the grimy pink pants...because consequences rule in our house.) He still gets ridiculously grumpy about “having” to hand-write thank you notes (Yes, I've always required him to write thank you notes since he was little.) He often leaves a massive trail of dirty socks, fast food cups, athletic cups, and other various sports equipment all over the house. (Which I round up and put in his bed to make a point.) He drives too fast and can’t seem to parallel park without running over my petunias. (I make him buy me new ones and plant them.) And recently he has something that smells like rotting meat in his bedroom and He. Doesn’t. Even. Care. (And nope, I don't clean his room for him. Never have, never will. I just close his door!)
So…he’s still exactly what most normal teenagers are like—and nothing magical happened on his 18th birthday that turned him into a fully functioning adult. And I'm not a bad parent because he isn't fully functioning adult at this mystical milestone. I do my best, let consequences sit on his shoulders, and trust that we've got a few years of maturing to do before I start freaking out about "parent fail."
Also, I remember what I was like at eighteen and clearly “mature” isn’t the word I’d use to describe myself.
And fortunately it’s not just some maturity deficit that runs in our family, because recent brain science confirms: a teenager’s brain is NOT fully developed at eighteen-years-old.
This brain research is actually really interesting (and relieving for parents!). People used to believe that kids’ brains were 95% developed by age six (as if!). And since puberty has fully occurred by age eighteen, kids were considered adults at that point.
But thanks to MRI technology and advances in neuroscience in the last decade, we have a much clearer picture of the structure and functioning that occurs inside a teenager’s brain. It’s now believed that their brains are only at 80% of full maturity by age eighteen, and often aren’t done completing the full synapse connections until the age of 25-30.
So basically my teenage son’s brain is like a pan of under-cooked brownies: firm around the perimeter but still squishy in the center.
And that under-cooked part? It’s solely located in the prefrontal cortex—the very important part of the brain that controls the exact behaviors that cause parents to face-palm on a daily basis! This is the part of the brain that controls impulses, risk-taking behavior, emotional reactions, moderates social behaviors, decision-making, long-range planning, understanding future consequences of current behavior…maturity.
Yes, that’s right! Eighteen-year-old’s are not finished cookin’! They might look like they’re fully ready from the outside, but stick a fork in ’em and you’ve got a hot mess with no structure.
In other words, STILL SQUISHY.
As long as his gooey brownie center is still cooking (and even after that), I’m going to remain an important guiding influence in his life. (And since I love brownies—and my son, I’ll not ever relinquish my title as his mother!)
Please don’t grade my parenting
Which brings me to my second point (Dear self—listen up!): I don’t appreciate my parenting being judged based on how my kid has “turned out” at age eighteen. In fact, I don’t appreciate it being judged, period.
The love I have for my kids, and the energy I’ve invested into their hearts, bodies, and minds, isn’t the kind of thing that can be graded.
Feeling like I’m “getting a grade” once they reach this mystical milestone of eighteen-years-old is living under the law of the world, and Jesus sets us free from the law. ALWAYS. I’m NOT graded by anything, and especially not by how my kids are going to “turn out. ”
Yes, I have a responsibility to raise them well. Yes, I need to pay attention to appropriate developmental milestones throughout their life in case something needs some extra intervention. Yes, I can take pride in their accomplishments. And yes, I’ll grieve their failures with them and allow them to bear the consequences.
But my value and my kids’ value isn’t measured by the “results” of my parenting. Our worth isn't measured by the worldly standards we set for ourselves, our worth is measured exclusively by Jesus. His sacrifice is the only proof I need to know we're valuable--flaws and all.
Jesus offers grace, not a grade.
Fellow parents, unite with me against these imaginary notions that age-based milestones define who are kids are, and who we are as parents. When we hear the false command, “Pencils down, hands up,” let’s ignore it, mmm k?
Instead, let’s let go of the pressure we’re feeling to produce super-human adults by the age of eighteen and instead simply savor our kids exactly as they are in this squishy-messy season.
Let’s not feel like we have to rush them into adulthood, nor hold them back from it.
Let’s encourage them to venture out into the world (but maybe avoid Matamoros) and gain their independence, remembering that their inevitable stumbles and screw-ups will be an important part of their maturing process.
Let’s stop feeling the guilt of “parenting fail” when our kids make poor or immature choices and instead find relief in trusting that God’s plan is still in place. (Remember—our kids see the next few months of their lives, parents see the next few years of their lives…but only God knows the whole path of their life journey.)
And let’s look beyond their achievements or failures as defined by the world, and take the time to see them through the eyes of Jesus.
May we breathe a deep sigh of relief and remember that no matter what, Jesus loves them unconditionally, and he’s not tracking their score or yours.
Age eighteen is not the finish line—for them, or for their parents.
Truth? There is no finish line.
Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of 5 teen and young adult kids. She's the author of a new book that chronicles her imperfect journey of parenting in this season with a refreshing sense honesty, humor, and practical insights: Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly.