Reporter's Notebook

Question Your Answers
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Since 1857, The Atlantic has been challenging established answers with tough questions. In this video, actor Michael K. Williams—best known as Omar Little from The Wire—wrestles with a question of his own: Is he being typecast?

What are you asking yourself about the world and its conventional wisdom? We want to hear your questions—and your thoughts on where to start finding the answers: hello@theatlantic.com. Each week, we’ll update this thread with a new question and your responses.

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When Your Parents Finally See You as an Adult

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:

Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Henry David Thoreau is something of a poster child for solitude. In his essay “Walking,” published just after his death in our June 1862 issue, Thoreau made the case “for absolute freedom and wildness … to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”:

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.

Thoreau himself was “a genuine American weirdo,” as Jedediah Purdy recently put it, and solitude suited him: His relentless individualism irritated his friends, including Atlantic co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described Thoreau’s habit of contradicting every point in pursuit of his own ideals as “a little chilling to the social affections.” Emerson may have had Thoreau in mind when, in our December 1857 issue, he mused that “many fine geniuses” felt the need to separate themselves from the world, to keep it from intruding on their thoughts. Yet he questioned whether such withdrawal was good for a person, not to mention for society as a whole:

Thoreau in his second and final photographic sitting, August 1861 (Wikimedia)

This banishment to the rocks and echoes no metaphysics can make right or tolerable. This result is so against nature, such a half-view, that it must be corrected by a common sense and experience. “A man is born by the side of his father, and there he remains.” A man must be clothed with society, or we shall feel a certain bareness and poverty, as of a displaced and unfurnished member. He is to be dressed in arts and institutions, as well as body-garments. Now and then a man exquisitely made can live alone, and must; but coop up most men, and you undo them. …

When a young barrister said to the late Mr. Mason, “I keep my chamber to read law,”—“Read law!” replied the veteran, “’tis in the courtroom you must read law.” Nor is the rule otherwise for literature. If you would learn to write, ’tis in the street you must learn it. Both for the vehicle and for the aims of fine arts, you must frequent the public square. … Society cannot do without cultivated men.

Emerson concluded that the key to effective, creative thought was to maintain a balance between solitary reflection and social interaction: “The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.”

Four decades later, in our November 1901 issue, Paul Elmore More identified a radical sympathy in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which stemmed, he argued, from Hawthorne’s own “imperial loneliness of soul”:

Hester Prynne, the lonely protagonist of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (Wikimedia)

His words have at last expressed what has long slumbered in human consciousness. … Not with impunity had the human race for ages dwelt on the eternal welfare of the soul; for from such meditation the sense of personal importance had become exacerbated to an extraordinary degree. … And when the alluring faith attendant on this form of introspection paled, as it did during the so-called transcendental movement into which Hawthorne was born, there resulted necessarily a feeling of anguish and bereavement more tragic than any previous moral stage through which the world had passed. The loneliness of the individual, which had been vaguely felt and lamented by poets and philosophers of the past, took on a poignancy altogether unexampled. It needed but an artist with the vision of Hawthorne to represent this feeling as the one tragic calamity of mortal life, as the great primeval curse of sin … the universal protest of the human heart.

Fast-forward a century, and what More described as “the solitude that invests the modern world” had only gotten deeper invested—while “the sense of personal importance” gained new narcissistic vehicles in the form of social-media tools that let us “connect” online while keeping our real, messy selves as private as we choose. Which is not a bad thing: In some ways, the internet looks like the perfect way to achieve Emerson’s ideal balance between independent thought and social engagement.

In our May 2012 issue, however, Steven Marche wondered if the rise of social media is making us lonely:

A considerable part of Facebook’s appeal stems from its miraculous fusion of distance with intimacy, or the illusion of distance with the illusion of intimacy. Our online communities become engines of self-image, and self-image becomes the engine of community. The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.

The new isolation is not of the kind that Americans once idealized, the lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic, or that of the astronaut who blasts into new worlds. Facebook’s isolation is a grind. What’s truly staggering about Facebook usage is not its volume—750 million photographs uploaded over a single weekend—but the constancy of the performance it demands. More than half its users—and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user—log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break.