The Ever-Shifting End of Childhood

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Here’s how an Atlantic author answered that question in September 1858:

Full of anticipations, full of simple, sweet delights, are these [childhood] years, the most valuable of [a] lifetime. Then wisdom and religion are intuitive. But the child hastens to leave its beautiful time and state, and watches its own growth with impatient eye. Soon he will seek to return. The expectation of the future has been disappointed. Manhood is not that free, powerful, and commanding state the imagination had delineated. And the world, too, disappoints his hope. He finds there things which none of his teachers ever hinted to him. He beholds a universal system of compromise and conformity, and in a fatal day he learns to compromise and conform.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that scientists began to seriously study child development. In our July 1961 issue, Peter B. Neubauer heralded “The Century of the Child”:

Gone is the sentimental view that childhood is an era of innocence and the belief that an innate process of development continuously unfolds along more or less immutable lines. Freud suggested that, from birth on, the child’s development proceeds in a succession of well-defined stages, each with its own distinctive psychic organization, and that at each stage environmental factors can foster health and achievement or bring about lasting retardation and pathology. …

Freudian psychology does not, as some people apparently imagine, provide a set of ready-made prescriptions for the rearing of children. … The complexity of the interactions between mother and child cannot be reduced to rigid formulas. Love and understanding cannot be prescribed, and if they are not genuinely manifested, the most enlightened efforts to do what is best for the child may not be effective.

According to this view, children weren’t miniature adults, but they were preparing for adulthood. Growing up was a process that had to be managed by adults, which made the boundaries of childhood both more important and more nebulous.

A few years later, in our October 1968 issue, Richard Poirier described the backlash to a wave of campus protests as “The War Against the Young.” He implored older adults to take young people’s ideas seriously:

It is perhaps already irrelevant, for example, to discuss the so-called student revolt as if it were an expression of “youth.” The revolt might more properly be taken as a repudiation by the young of what adults call “youth.” It may be an attempt to cast aside the strangely exploitative and at once cloying, the protective and impotizing concept of “youth” which society foists on people who often want to consider themselves adults.

What’s more, Poirier argued, idealism shouldn’t just be the province of the young:

If young people are freeing themselves from a repressive myth of youth only to be absorbed into a repressive myth of adulthood, then youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope, will have been lost to us, and we will have exhausted the best of our natural resources.

But how much redefinition could adulthood handle? In our February 1975 issue, Midge Decter addressed an anxious letter to that generation of student revolutionaries, who—though “no longer entitled to be called children”—had not yet fulfilled the necessary rites of passage for being “fully accredited adults”:

Why have you, the children, found it so hard to take your rightful place in the world? Just that. Why have your parents’ hopes for you come to seem so impossible of attainment?

Some of their expectations were, to be sure, exalted. … But … beneath these throbbing ambitions were all the ordinary—if you will, mundane—hopes that all parents harbor for their children: that you would grow up, come into your own, and with all due happiness and high spirit, carry forward the normal human business of mating, home-building, and reproducing—replacing us, in other words, in the eternal human cycle. And it is here that we find ourselves to be most uneasy, both for you and about you.

Decter blamed this state of affairs on overindulgent parenting: Adults, she argued, had failed their children by working too hard to protect them from unhappiness and by treating their “youthful rebellion” with too much deference.

The next decades’ developments in child psychology gave parents new advice. In our March 1987 issue, Bruno Bettelheim stressed the importance of letting kids guide their own play, without parents pushing them to obey rules they aren’t yet developmentally ready for. And in our February 1990 issue, Robert Karen outlined attachment theorists’ recommendations for how to “enable children to thrive emotionally and come to feel that the world of people is a positive place”—standards measured in part by a baby’s willingness to explore apart from its mother.

Were these parenting styles encouraging kids’ independence, or failing to push them hard enough? A generation after Decter, in Lori Gottlieb’s 2011 Atlantic piece “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” she also worried about parental indulgence:

The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life—that, as Dan Kindlon, the psychologist from Harvard, puts it, “if they ever feel a twinge of non-euphoria, there should be another option.” [Psychologist Wendy] Mogel puts it even more bluntly: what parents are creating with all this choice are anxious and entitled kids whom she describes as “handicapped royalty.” …

When I was my son’s age, I didn’t routinely get to choose my menu, or where to go on weekends—and the friends I asked say they didn’t, either. There was some negotiation, but not a lot, and we were content with that. We didn’t expect so much choice, so it didn’t bother us not to have it until we were older, when we were ready to handle the responsibility it requires. But today, [psychologist Jean] Twenge says, “we treat our kids like adults when they’re children, and we infantilize them when they’re 18 years old.”

In Hanna Rosin’s April 2014 article “The Overprotected Kid,” she lamented the loss of independence that once helped kids come of age:

One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all; they just become adept at mimicking the habits of adulthood. As [geographer Roger] Hart’s research shows, children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some of them got small neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children, at least, skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.

Yet how exactly do you measure “true” independence and self-reliance? And what’s the final milestone that marks the transition to adulthood? Decter suggests it’s settling down with a stable career and a family. But in Julie Beck’s 2016 Atlantic piece, “When Are You Really an Adult?,” she places that rite of passage in historical context:

The economic boom that came after World War II made Leave It to Beaver adulthood more attainable than it had ever been. Even for very young adults. There were enough jobs available for young men, [historian Steven] Mintz writes, that they sometimes didn’t need a high-school diploma to get a job that could support a family. And social mores of the time strongly favored marriage over unmarried cohabitation hence: job, spouse, house, kids. But this was a historical anomaly. …

Many young people, [psychologist Jeffrey] Jensen Arnett says, still want these things—to establish careers, to get married, to have kids. (Or some combination thereof.) They just don’t see them as the defining traits of adulthood. Unfortunately, not all of society has caught up, and older generations may not recognize the young as adults without these markers. A big part of being an adult is people treating you like one, and taking on these roles can help you convince others—and yourself—that you’re responsible.

So, adults: What convinced you? Many readers have discussed the topic already, and we’d like to reopen the call for your stories—this time with an eye to the gaps between what it takes to feel like an adult and what it takes to be seen as one. Did you feel you’d become an adult long before you got treated like one? Or have you passed the markers of adulthood without quite feeling you’ve fully grown up? If you’re a parent, when did you feel your kids had grown up, or what will it take to make you certain? Please send your answers—and questions—to