Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Usage Note: "Adult Children" (14 Feb. 2015)

My first thought at hearing the phrase "adult child" is, "If you raised an adult child, you failed as a parent."

My second thought is that the first thought was at worst cruel, at best a bit unfair.

        If your child has serious developmental problems and emotionally or intellectually and/or physically  gets to her or his twenties without reaching adult development, then, obviously, you should be respected and complimented on your job of parenting. 

        In less somber contexts — on linguistic grounds, a fair-minded person might object that people speaking of an "adult child" understand "child"   as just "offspring," which makes the phrase mean the harmless "adult offspring." Okay, but come on! There's always "son" and "daughter" and "offspring" isn't that tough a word and works for most people who are biological parents as well as parenting parents.

         On more paractical grounds, the accusation of failure as a parent often overestimates the influence of parents on the outcome of their offspring. Most of us most of the time blame the parents for rotten kids — and we usually should — but not always. If a family is stuck with a 22-year old child, it may not be the fault of the parents.

         It may not be anyone's fault, but it is a problem.

         I first heard "adult child" and such in the phrase "adult children of alcoholics," and the usage seemed wrong. Adult offspring of alcoholics, God and Al Anon know, frequently have issues, but those issues didn't seem to me — at least from a distance — to be some sort of culpable immaturity. If anything, some people with a subgroup of ... what would be the proper term here? ... let's say some variety of fucked up parents take on adult responsibility at an early age and are adult well before leaving their teens, sometimes adult heartbreakingly too young.

         Folks out there using English should remember that children don't have the same rights as adults and should not have the same rights as adults. In the context of the 2014/15 round of the debate on mandated innoculations, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said, "The state doesn't own your children" and clarified that "Parents own the children." There was widespread denunciation of the idea of anyone's owning children, but it is significant that a US Senator in the libertarian tradition (no less) would think in terms of owning kids and that many of those denouncing the line were of the emphatically non-libertarian strain of the Left who were far some seeing children as autonomous, responsible beings who could usually be trusted to take care of themselves.

         Let's say play alone in a city part or take the subway.

         Children do not have the same rights as adults and do need protection, and there are powerful Americans of a wide swath of political persuasions who go way, way too far in "protecting our children." (As I said when the Powers that Were in the City of Chicago introduced a teen curfew and argued it was to protect teenagers — bullshit! it was to protect grownups afraid, sometimes with justification, of teenagers — "Just do me one favor: Don't do me no favors.")

         Eric Posner recently did a fine job of provocation, arguing that "Universities Are Right and Within Their Rights to Crack Down on Speech and Behavior" of college students because "Students today are more like children than adults and need protection." Which means, of course, that the "kids" need to be not only protected from words and topics and ideas that might upset them but also from misusing freedoms we in America recognize as birthrights for grownups.

         Children may not be owned by the State or their parents, but they do need people to control them.

         If your offspring turned out all right and can do okay on their own, thank you, they're you're adult offspring; don't insult them by calling them children or share with others that feeling deep inside that they will always be your little girl, your little boy. Such feelings fine in your heart of hearts but make for a lousy idea for public policy.

         If Posner has a point and we have wide-spread arrested development among young Americans, well, that is a serious social issue to be dealt with and not to be blandly accepted. The phrase "adult child" can have some very negative implications; it should not be used casually. 

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