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The Magic and Myth of 18

  • Lori Borgman Contributor
  • 2008 18 Apr
The Magic and Myth of 18

There is a silent wedge that often weasels its way between parents and kids during the later teen years. It is the Magic of 18.

Whether it is in the water, the air, or the last few swigs of Mountain Dew, the message is clear – big things are going to happen when you turn 18.

Oh yeah.

When you turn 18, you can vote.

When you turn 18, you can buy cigarettes.

There is a lot of hype about turning 18. Sometimes it comes from the culture, other times it comes from the schools.

When our son was a senior in high school and facing a third knee surgery, we told him to make plans to keep up with his classes, especially calculus. "Get extra help," I said. "Find a tutor, if you need to. Do whatever it takes."

A week after he returned to school I said, "How’s calculus?"


"Yes, calculus."

"Oh, I’m not in the class."

"What do you mean you’re not in the class?"

"You said do whatever it takes and it took dropping the class." (Score one for the power of literal interpretation.)

"Why didn’t we know about this?" I asked.

"The counselor said I could make any change I wanted and that you and Dad didn’t need to know because I am 18."

Yes, big things do happen when you’re 18 – and your mother exploding may be one of them.

I told him we didn’t care what the Twenty-Something counselor in stiletto heels at the local high school said, we still needed to be in on major decisions.

When young men in my father’s generation turned 18, vast numbers of them were on ships bound for World War II. Some at the front of my generation were headed to Viet Nam. And today, a smattering but significant number of 18-year-olds headed to military service as well. But times have changed and, for the most part, today’s 18 is not your father’s 18. From 15 years of teaching college students, I can tell you that young people are maturing later. They may be more sophisticated, but they are not more mature.

Maturity means full development. Included in this maturity would be delayed gratification. Their sophistication may be impressive, but sophistication is an exterior -- it is not the same as the internal maturation process. This is not a slam, it is a reflection of a societal shift. Young people have been cocooned, sent from this organized group with people like them, to another organized group with people like them, and had structure here and structure there. They have had so many of the lumps of life removed from their path that a large portion of real life experiences have been delayed. They are still maturing. They are not ready to be completely cut lose and start running the family farm. At the time of launch they may be 18, but they are still a work in progress.

Here’s the catch to being 18 today. Kids feel like adults, look like adults and sound like adults, but when they’re still living under their parents’ roof, eating their food, using their electricity, water, washer and dryer and probably driving their automobiles, it is a far cry from self-sufficiency and independence. For obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, parents and kids still need to be connected in preparation for the final launch.

This concept of connectedness, even at 18, was once recognized by colleges that served "in loco parentis" from the Latin, meaning "in the place of a parent."

Used in a sentence: "Because Biff’s parents were 200 miles away, the dean of men acted in loco parentis and disciplined him for breaking curfew, public drunkenness and vandalizing the carport at the Tri Delt house."

Used in another sentence: "Colleges and universities no longer act in loco parentis, because the kids are all 18."

There are some tricky waters to navigate at 18 -- education matters, work options, personal finances, lifestyle choices, medical care, and preparation for leaving home. While eager to paddle their own canoes, until they are completely independent and self-supporting, young adults still need occasional help steering from mom and dad.

*Article originally posted on March 30, 2006

Columnist and speaker Lori Borgman is the author of several books including Pass the Faith, Please (Waterbrook Press) and All Stressed Up and No Place to Go     (Emmis Books). Comments may be sent to her at