When Your Parents Finally See You as an Adult

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

Last year, Julie Beck wrote a popular piece centered on the question, “When Are You Really an Adult?” She went beyond the biological and legal answers to delve into the more subjective realms of culture and personal experience. The many markers of adulthood were then illustrated in the variety of stories we collected from readers—clustered around commonplace themes of financial independence, parenthood, and divorce, but also less common experiences such as losing a parent at a young age, rape, and dodging the wrath of a dictatorship.

This week, we posed a related question to readers: “When does childhood end?”—and, more interestingly, “When did you become an adult in your parents’ eyes?,” a version that adds a layer of subjectivity to an already subjective topic. Here’s a response from Terri:

When I was 11, my mother died. My father had become blind a few years before, from a rare form of glaucoma. He had no choice but to allow me to do things that are normally done by an adult, such as budgeting and paying bills, cooking and cleaning, and other various things. He had to talk to me in an honest way, and make me understand things and rely on my judgement in lots of matters. Other adults did too. I was never a child again after my mother died and my dad knew it.

Another reader’s mother also died at a pretty young age:

I became an adult when my mother died and my dad started dating four months later. I was 20 years old. Once he had a new woman in his life (whom he is still married to now) and essentially a new family, I was out. We had really started to be at odds the year before, when I had started to do things my way instead of his way. He had pretty much taken for granted that I could make it in this world without his advice or anything.

For this next reader, it was boarding school:

I’m not sure the end of childhood is the sort of thing that one can pinpoint; seems to me there were rather a number of distinct rites of passage. The first was when I went to boarding school, around age 10. When my parents dropped me off that first day, I knew I was on my own. Calling home to say they should come get you was not an option; my parents made this pretty clear, but it was not necessary. I knew.

Another reader had to go abroad to step out of childhood:

When I was an exchange student, my father came down to visit. There I was, living independently in a foreign country at 17. I could speak the language fluently and had to navigate us for him.

George also left the country to become an adult:

I was 18 and turned down an Ivy League school and, using my own money, moved to Italy to live with my 25-year-old girlfriend. I think my parents would say I became an adult when, at 26, I handed them a copy of my will and let them know I had been chosen to deploy in a war zone as a civilian alongside a joint counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency military unit. Strangely enough, they weren’t happy with either bit of news.

Rachael was 18 and had just started college:

I received an offer for health insurance in the mail. It went to my home address, and my mom was absolutely thrilled at the notion that I would be off her employer-supplied (but expensive) health insurance. I began paying for my own health insurance at that time, but I also let her know that I wouldn’t allow her to claim me as a dependent on her income taxes anymore. I paid my own expenses (insurance, college, etc). I laugh now when I think of “kids” still being on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26.

This next reader is almost 26:

I became an adult in the past year or so, when my dad learned how much was in my savings account and I mentioned my credit score in the context of considering new car costs. I think my parents assumed up to that point that I was just scraping by and blowing my money irresponsibly, and they were impressed with the degree to which I was caring for myself.

I think calling my dad and asking for advice has helped him to see me differently as well. There’s something about discussing investments and trying to decide on insurance plans that I would assume makes it hard to keep seeing your kid as a kid.

Another reader also nods to financial independence: “I became an adult when I began to pick up the check for my parents by surreptitiously passing plastic to the maître d’ early in the meal.” This next reader entered adulthood in a brutal fashion:

I was 20 and began working at the same factory as my father did. He was in maintenance as an industrial electrician. There had been a summer program for employees’ children and I worked out well enough that I was hired at the end of the summer. He was proud that I carried my weight.

However, three years into it and just after my 23rd birthday, my hand got caught in a take-up roll for a large paper machine and I was flung around like a rag doll. With both femurs and my left ulna, left radius, and left humerus broken, I spent months recovering.

But I kept a good attitude, believing falsely that I would be back to my normal self. My dad told me that he could never have had such a good attitude having gone through what I did.

This next reader also defined his adulthood alongside his dad’s admiration:

I became an adult when I joined the ROTC program my freshman year of college to appease my dad. He got a glimmer of pride in his eyes, saw it as me taking initiative, and was proud that I seemed interested in serving my country. I wasn’t really; I only did it to get him off my back so I could do drugs and other hedonistic things in college. But it was good to have his approval for once and no stress.

The first moment of adulthood was rather mundane for this reader: “Probably the day Mom asked if she could come to my apartment 45 minutes away to use my washing machine because hers was broken.” For another reader, the moment was different for each of his parents:

For my dad, I’d say the writing was on the wall around the time I was 16 and it became apparent that I was physically stronger than he was. He maintained the power of the purse for a few years after, but, considering that it was at about the same time when he’d occasionally offer me a beer, I’m inclined to accept that I was an adult in his eyes.

Mom? Damn, who knows what she really thinks about anything, but I’m guessing she first fully acknowledged my adulthood not through any of the accomplishments or milestones, but when, in 2003, I bought her a car and she therefore had a tangible symbol that could be seen and acknowledged by others.

This next reader’s parents need grandkids before truly considering her an adult:

I’m a 31-year-old married attorney homeowner with no kids. I don’t think my parents look at me like an adult. I don’t think they will until I have kids. This is most obviously manifested in my parents’ constant amnesia of me being a lawyer. They will be having discussions about some legal consideration, I’ll weigh in, yet my opinion is given no weight whatsoever. Though maybe I’m just being whiny that they aren’t taking me seriously. Is that the same thing as not seeing me as an adult? They seem very proud of me, but that doesn’t seem akin to viewing me as an adult either.

Jason might never become an adult in his parents’ eyes:

In some ways, my sister and I will always be “kids.” My mom will randomly start doing things to my hair or bring over something like saucepans that we already have and don’t need. My dad critiques my yard and is always convinced something is wrong with my car (there isn’t, Dad, it’s fine!) I just laugh at this stuff, though; it doesn’t really bother me.

It bothers Doug, though; he finds the topic a “sore spot”:

I’m not convinced my parents believe I’m an adult. I’m 32, the youngest of three, the second most-educated (sister has multiple grad degrees), and the highest earner. I’m constantly getting asked if I’m saving enough or if I need help with anything. Meanwhile, I never ask for help, but both of my older sisters constantly need help. I’m the one who made sure my dad got power of attorney for my grandmother before she totally lost it, and who opened college accounts for my nieces and nephews.

But I’m the youngest, so I’m a kid forever.