Being a teenager can be an exercise in contradictions, and that fact becomes particularly visible as college application season looms. How can you pick the college that’s best for your intended future career when you still have a curfew? How can you ask for help when it seems like you’re supposed to be working on your independence? When it comes down to it, are you a child or an adult?
As with many other issues, the answer to this question is far more complicated than one or the other. Even though it’s uncomfortable, the reality is that when you’re in your late teens, you’re somewhere in between. Read on for how to get more comfortable in that middle ground as you get ready for your transition to college.
Being in your junior or senior year of high school can sometimes feel like all work and no play, especially if you’re planning to apply to competitive colleges. There’s a lot going on, and getting through this stressful time can bring up some of the major contradictions in how we as a society view teenagers.
On one hand, I don’t need to tell you that getting to college requires a lot of time and energy. You have a lot to juggle, and you’re expected to be performing at a high level in the classroom and outside of it. On top of all that, somewhere in there, you’re supposed to start answering the big questions about what you’re going to do with your life and what you need to do now to start preparing.
The decisions that you make about college generally aren’t set in stone, but they do involve making some pretty major commitments, and changing course later on can be tricky. Some advice about choosing a college makes it sound like a fairy tale in which, if you choose right, you’ll live happily ever after. Choose wrong, on the other hand, and you’ll ruin your life forever—or at least it seems that way.
Besides this societal expectation, the legal reality is that in most ways, colleges will treat you as an adult when you apply. (Check out the CollegeVine blog post Do Colleges Consider Me a Child or Adult When I Apply? for more on that topic.) Colleges don’t evaluate your parents or your teachers— they’re concerned with what you have to say. That gives you a lot of freedom to make your own choices, but it’s also possible that you’ll mess up that opportunity.
Navigating a stressful everyday life and making momentous decisions about the future? That’s a lot of weight to ask one person to carry, but that’s what we ask teenagers to do every year. You’d think that a person invested with that kind of responsibility for shaping their own life must be an adult—how much more grown-up can you get than planning out your future path?
Clearly, however, there are plenty of ways in which we don’t consider teenagers adults or treat them as such. When you’re in high school, you’re expected to do a lot of listening and obeying, whether it’s at home, at school, or in the community. Compared with the initiative and independence you’re probably trying to show on your college applications, this can be a little painful to endure.
Generally, at this age, it’s also expected that you’ll be protected by and dependent on your family, mostly your parents. A particularly good example of this is that even though colleges mostly want to talk to you while you’re applying, they still generally expect that your parents will be paying the bills. (As someone who worked in a college financial aid office, I can say from experience that some parents are very unhappy with this juxtaposition.)
These conflicting expectations can leave you in an awkward position, with a lot of questions to sort through. It’s not simply about whether you are an adult right now—it’s also about whether you should be an adult right now. When is it time to push yourself to be independent, and for how long is it still okay to depend on those who have taken care of you as a child?
Encountering the diversity of teenage experiences
When I turned eighteen, I felt like I had passed a milestone and was now an adult. That’s how my parents were brought up, and that’s what they expected of me in turn. They certainly cared about my college search process and were interested and invested in the decisions I made, but in the end, it was always clear that it was up to me to make my own choices once I hit that age.
After I left for college, this feeling only intensified. I’m the oldest in a big family, and my childhood bedroom and possessions were quickly repossessed by my siblings, reinforcing the clean break from my younger years. I talked to my parents regularly, but I took for granted that they wouldn’t be highly involved in the everyday issues of my life.
Years later, I can see more clearly some of the reasons why my family took this approach. There are a lot of factors that go into your level or sense of independence when you’re a young person. Your cultural background, your location, whether you had a stay-at-home parent, your socioeconomic status, whether you have siblings—all of these things shape your experiences and help to make you the person you are today.
For me, growing up in the way that I did was neither a good thing nor a bad thing—it was simply the way the world worked, the idea of reality that had emerged from my own family and other circumstances. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I figured out that for some of my new college friends, the world worked in a decidedly different way.
The revelations started on move-in day, when other people’s parents stuck around for dinner and helped decorate dorm rooms. Meanwhile, my dad proclaimed that he would just slow down a little passing through campus and push me and my belongings out the back door of the van. He was joking, of course, but I don’t think it occurred to either him or me that he might want to hang out for a while and get me settled in my new life. That part was up to me.
The surprises kept coming, too. One friend casually dropped that she didn’t even know what bank her savings were in—her parents managed her money and provided her with a credit card. Another acquaintance, in a spectacular performance as a collegiate stereotype, really did lug his dirty laundry home every so often because he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do it himself.
Here’s the thing, though: while these choices and quirks seemed bizarre to me, they’re probably par for the course to many of you who are reading this. It just goes to show you that no matter what you think of as usual behavior, someone else will have a different idea, and in your tumultuous teens, these differences can become especially evident.
In high school and college, you’ll meet people whose conceptions of adulthood are all over the map. In that sense, it’s pretty useless to try to discern and live up to a particular society-wide standard for when you should be—or try to be—an adult. Everyone has a different perspective, so the only way for you to move forward is to figure out what you’re comfortable with in your own terms.
Embracing the gray area
So are you a child or an adult? I’m firmly convinced that late high school and early college students are neither children nor adults, and shouldn’t be pushed wholesale into either category.
In nearly every way—legally, psychologically, experientially, practically—people in their late teens and early twenties are somewhere in between. I believe that the best way to navigate this experience is to embrace this uncertainty, accept the variety of ways of being you’ll encounter, and focus on your own personal growth without worrying too much about what others think.
Speaking for myself, meeting people with ideas of adulthood so different from mine caused me some angst. I was so used to thinking of one way of doing things as “normal” or “average” that other models didn’t make much sense to me.
I was sometimes baffled at how my classmates and friends dealt with their parents still being involved in their lives. Didn’t they resent the intrusion into their own adult decisions? Why weren’t they trying harder to be independent, like real adults? (It hadn’t entirely occurred to me yet that my own bullheaded insistence on being independent was sometimes harmful rather than helpful.)
At the same time, I sometimes felt judged because of my independence. I worried that people thought my parents didn’t care about me because they weren’t as involved in my life as some other parents. In fact, my parents’ caring just took a different form—they valued teaching me to be an independent adult, and they felt like an important part of that was allowing me to figure out my new college lifestyle more on my own.
All this is to say that you’re going to meet a lot of people who are different from you. Don’t judge others for not having the same experiences and preferences as you—and don’t judge yourself for not having the same experiences and preferences as others.
As with many aspects of the experience of high school and college students, this is one that can stress you out a great deal, but it’s genuinely one that you don’t need to worry about very much. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it, but there’s also nothing wrong with prizing your independence, even at a relatively young age. Adulthood will come eventually, but there’s no need to rush into it. Enjoy the gray area while it lasts.
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