When Do Kids Become Adults?

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Giving kids the opportunity to meander to adulthood

The question was posed to me recently by our son, who had just turned 18. In the eyes of our government, he was enough of an adult to manage his own health care, bar us from speaking to his Dr. (if he so chose), vote in the next election, keep us from seeing his grades (even though we were paying the tuition), and was old enough to be required to enroll in selective service. The perennial argument has gone (and he advanced it himself) that if he is old enough to enlist and fight for his country, why does the government not allow him to have a beer. I don’t have an answer for that, and I didn’t plan on addressing it here. “It’s complicated”, I told him - and if you want a bit of history on that, there was a great piece in the paper just last week. I also did remind him that recent studies have shown that the adolescent brain is not fully developed until sometime around the age of 25!

Rather than delve into what it means to be an adult, this line of questioning sent me off to think about what it means to be a child. Afterall, I am in the business of “childhood”. Mary Jane Curran, our Girls Director, said it best recently, “If we believe that childhood is, in fact, a stage to be outgrown, it is important that we allow them to inhabit this space for a period of time.” It is important, as I see it, that as we help our campers (and our own children) define what it means to be an adult, we first allow them to have a good run at childhood, to first play at being an adult, before they are expected to behave like one!

Summer camp, and Camp Mishawaka, can play a vital role in this development. By design, it gives kids a laboratory to explore their own childhood- to wonder, to wander, to learn, to grow, to laugh and to play. Campers negotiate personal relationships, conflict, accept and appreciate differences, practice decision making and accepting the consequences of poor choices- as well as reaping the rewards of hard work. Kids see and hear the world through different eyes, and ears to be sure. I was reminded of this magical perception when I watched our latest short video.

What adult hasn’t said, “I wish I knew then what I know now!”, in reference to their childhood? I know I have, but I also know that so much of this I just had to learn for myself. I am grateful for the mentors I found along the way at Camp Mishawaka, counselors - in every sense of the word- with whom I made a connection. They were young (and older) adults whom I admired and mirrored. They complemented my parents’ work in providing a vital framework for making, and accepting, adult-like decisions. And they did it in a way that nourished the child in me as well. I believe we still do that today. It is, as I have come to say, our calling.

As the author Julie Beck writes, “What adulthood means in a society is an ocean fed by too many rivers to count.” The river of childhood meanders - when and where it finds its way to the pools of maturity varies, and some may never fully “arrive”. But I do believe if we owe kids one thing, it is the opportunity to make this journey with all the support and example we can muster. I find that kids don’t often declare their adulthood, they accept it, and exhibit it - as they learn to take care of people, take care of things, and take care of themselves. I am not sure one can find a better place on earth to learn these things than Camp Mishawaka.


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