The Apparent Agency of Adults

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Adulthood has often been explained as the moment you are supposed to know what you are doing. With your life, your job, your hair. Yet judging from the think pieces that continue to trickle out of the Internet, and conversations I’ve been having with people as young as twenty and as old as fifty, it seems that no one really knows, or admits to, having figured out how to be an adult.

In fact, we no longer seem interested in becoming adults, even as our personal and professional responsibilities grow. The more attractive idea is that we are instead all blind together, stumbling through the world and trying our best to cobble together a respectable life. Adulthood appears to have been relegated to the horizon point, a place we approach, but never reach. What we once called the inner child is let out to play for longer, its curfew overextended.

I don’t mind this manner of thinking about growth and development. I’m certainly living a child’s life myself, writing stories, sleeping until ten, daydreaming in bed until noon. Giving up the concept of adulthood allows for a loosening of expectations. Play, no longer shoved back with childhood, is encouraged. There are now coloring books for adults, summer camps for adults, alcoholic root beer–the blurring goes on and on.

Yet even as we allow childhood and adulthood to run together, I’m still noticing that a sharp distinction remains, even amongst people who have thrown off most of the trappings of adulthood. What I have come to see is that an adult is someone who lives in the can; a child is someone who lives in the should. I have come to see this because of a strange pattern that keeps coming up in my life, one where other people, of all ages, react as if allergic to the semantics of should.

Nothing gets me a faster reaction than when I start a question with the word “should.” Should I not have ordered this? Should I go to this reading? What do you think I should do next? Each time, the person—be it a friend, a waiter, a teacher—seems almost to rear back at the offending word, before they deliver roughly the same response: What do you mean should? I always noticed and marked these flare-ups, these fastballed retorts, but I never could understand what was so offensive about the word until, finally, a piano teacher followed up his near-instinctual response with, “You can do whatever you want. You’re an adult.”

shoulda known betterHis words stayed in my head, mostly because they seemed so irrelevant to our situation. I had never thought once that I couldn’t do what I wanted. I didn’t see how using the word should meant I wasn’t acting like an adult. What I wanted, in that specific moment, was to know whether he thought I should graduate from my current musical arrangement or practice it another week. New to taking piano lessons, I was planning on listening to his personal and professional opinion, and then making my own decision. I saw that in all the other situations in which I asked should, and was corrected, I was trying to understand a system or practice that was new to me, but not to the person I was asking. But in all the situations in which I asked should, and was corrected, I never once was actually asking for permission. I never once was denying the agency of my apparent adulthood.

The question behind the use of should is often construed as a question of correctness. It brings up concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, polite and impolite. A person who relies heavily on should I’s and shouldn’t I’s can therefore be seen as someone who cannot make a decision without a rubric, who hasn’t yet learned how to think for themselves. This is a person who has to ask for permission before they act. And this sort of behavior is only acceptable if you are a child. If you are grown, then scrub the word out of your mouth.

My examples are tame and perhaps petty, and yet they point me towards a more perverse manifestation of these assumptions. Because a person who is always asking for permission, trying to figure life out in a practical rather than an abstract way, is not always a child. Sometimes, that person is an immigrant. My parents, seen through this lens, do not know how to be “adults” in America, and are therefore disqualified as such in the eyes of many Americans. I have watched them be infantilized by strangers, seen as less than capable by employers, condescended to by their children (yes, that includes me) as a result. Their experiences show me how a culture so squeamish with spelling out its own unwritten rules is a culture that ignores its own inscrutability to outsiders while claiming to be an open book to all. This is a grand leap, I know. Yet it is the core of my uneasiness with the knee-jerk response that to ask how things are usually done is to cast doubt upon your agency as an adult.

If the entire thinking process of the current state of non-adulthood is that none of us knows what we are doing, that we are all asking questions, then why is there such push-back against starting some of these questions with should? Because if we keep espousing the wonders of non-adulthood, the disappearance of adults, good riddance to the rigid system, then the question of should, of may I, of what is correct, is always appropriate. You cannot glorify your own ever-questioning adulthood while also disqualifying adults who ask questions that you have already answered. Of course none of us know what we should be doing—it is only in asking that we can decide.


Image: Hickman, Pat. “Tyranny of the Shoulds.” 1989. Hog casings. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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