When New Yorkers Become an Adult

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

Our video team shot a charming video of short interviews on the streets of New York centered on the question, “How do you know when you’re a grown-up?”:

A reader who watched the video writes:

The “responsible for yourself” has it right. You don’t need to have kids, get married, buy a house, etc (though all that will certainly give you more responsibilities). Some people are 18-years old and grown up. Some are double/triple that age and haven’t reached it yet.

Speaking of New York City, the following email came in responding to our callout for stories of reaching adulthood. Here’s Lauren:

After I got married and had my first son, I thought I would start feeling like an adult. Then after I landed a dream job, bought a house, and relocated my family to a new town where we didn’t know anyone, I thought I would start feeling like an adult. Even after I had my second son three months ago, I kept waiting for the feeling to kick in.

Then the other day my eldest, almost four, watched an episode of Reading Rainbow about September 11.

I was sitting with him when I realized what was happening, and I froze. Do I tell him to turn it off? If so, do I tell him it’s because it’s inappropriate? Because he’s too young to know?

Instead, I just texted my husband, “Holy shit, Reading Rainbow is covering September 11” and let him watch it. [A clip from that episode is here.]

My son didn’t say much about it, and I wondered if it even made an impact. But the next day, as I helped him into his carseat on our way home from the library, he asked me why the planes crashed into the buildings. I started to make up a lie when I realized that’s not how I wanted to raise him. After all, we spoke about injustice and inequality when he asked about Martin Luther King, and we discussed women’s rights when he asked about Hillary Clinton.

So as I drove, I let him know that I would answer all of the questions that he had as best I could. I didn’t want to lie, knowing that he would eventually learn on his own and trust me less. So I carefully explained that not everyone likes what our country has done, that people did crash the plane into the buildings, that many people had to run out of the buildings, that people were very sad about what happened, and that it has not happened again.

He asked a few more questions, decided that people were upset that George Washington won the war (thanks, Hamilton soundtrack) and then we moved on to what dad was making for dinner. But in that moment of having to decide if and how to explain evil to my son, by permitting him to know that the world is full of confusion, that we are not innocent, and that tragedy is out there, I became an adult.

If you have a New York-specific moment marking your adulthood, let us know. When I was 22, recently out of college and living in a 70-square-foot room in Hell’s Kitchen, I remember being in the Empire State Building on my lunch break for a course I was taking on web design and realizing that I didn’t even have enough money to buy a slice of pizza—no cash, not enough money in my checking account to withdraw $20, and the cost of the pizza being too little to charge on my credit card. Talk about financial independence. We received many similar stories from readers discussing their own independence from their parents (though my own marker of adulthood wouldn’t come later), so we’ll air those soon.