When does adulthood begin? There are the articles regularly placing it older and older, according to the latest neuroscience. The 'the human brain only stops developing at' articles, according to which I, at the tail end of 30, am probably too young to be making any major life decisions.
But the real ambiguity is the one surrounding college students. We've decided that they're too old to live at home but too young to pay their own way. If 60% of 20-somethings and early-30-somethings are getting financial help from their parents (how I read the relevant, startling paragraph), that's not a phenomenon that can be dismissed as impacting only the rich. Certainly if you consider that those not receiving help are probably clustered mostly on the older end of that range. The way the economy is now structured, it's unlikely that a 20-year-old, especially one in school, is entirely financially independent. That exceptions exist, or that many managed this in a different economy, is a distraction.
But we still have this notion of 18 as adult. And it's this tension that leads to messes like the one described in this week's Social Qs:
I am the mother of a 20-year-old college student who is still on our family health insurance plan. I was confused about a benefit statement we received regarding her visit to the gynecologist. The insurance company told me the charge was for fitting her with a diaphragm. I am not sure if this is correct, but my husband and I disagree whether it’s appropriate to discuss it with her. Thoughts?Philip Galanes answers the question in a way that almost makes sense, until you remember that the child in question is 20:
Of course you should talk to her! What are you waiting for — your daughter to hit menopause? If you suspect the bill is incorrect because your 20-year-old is not having sex, let me assure you that you are probably wrong (statistically speaking). And whether your daughter likes it or not, it is your job as a parent, along with her father, to insist on a running dialogue about her emotional and psychological readiness for all kinds of adult activities she is on the verge of undertaking — including sex.
As with many important talks, this one may be squirmy to start. So, whichever of you is better at intimate chatting should sidle into her bedroom one night, and ask her sweetly about her love life: “Anyone special?” And no matter what your personal views of premarital sex, let her know that you just want to help her make the right decision — for her. Feel free to wax poetic about waiting for true love, but for God’s sake, make sure she knows that a diaphragm will not protect her from sexually-transmitted diseases. Now, get to work, Mom!A 20-year-old looking for contraception is, one would hope, informed enough to know which forms do and don't prevent STDs. If she's gone to a doctor for said contraception, seemingly the doctor would also discuss this with her. 20 seems sort of ancient to be learning the facts of life. A conversation about this with one's 10-year-old might be "squirmy," but with one's 20-year-old, it's squirmy in the same way as it would be squirmy for any adult to discuss any other adult relative's sex life. A 20-year-old should feel comfortable going to her parents in a time of crisis, but what, in this case, is the crisis? This seems like a case of an adult behaving sensibly.
More to the point: isn't doctor-patient confidentiality supposed to be a thing? Again, maybe there would be some emergency situation where that would have to be breached, but does a 20-year-old getting contraception count as such?
But it's the parents' insurance! They are paying for the diaphragm, so they have the right to... what, exactly? It *is* an awkward situation. It's now appropriate (says the government!) to stay on one's parents health insurance until 26, as well as quite possible to be employed without benefits. So the health information of generally functional 25-year-olds is open information for their parents. Should the parents happen to be writers of overshare (and who isn't these days), they're thus free to spill not only anonymously, to advice columnists, but in any public forum they desire. 'My Millenial Child Has Herpes,' coming soon to a magazine cover near you. But back to the matter at hand: 20 is at one and the same time too old to ask for a parent's permission (or owe an explanation!) for something so private as contraception, and too young to deal with this truly independently.
The answer I always lean to, for this sort of thing, is the one that will rile my libertarian readers: get the state involved. For people of limbo age, in higher education or the lowest, most precarious rungs of employment, basic living expenses and health insurance should come from the government. The parents (and non-parent adults) are still paying, yes, but in tax dollars. This would apply not to children, but to those in whichever age range we determine is both definitively adult and realistically tough to be 100% self-supporting at in our economy. Maybe 18-22, maybe 18-25. This would accomplish two things. First, it would level the playing field at a time in people's lives where this is especially key, but also especially possible to address. (An equal playing field within the childhood home is, for obvious reasons, more complicated.) Second, it would take away the awkwardness around children owing not just society but their parents specific behaviors as adults. Because it's not exactly that the 20-year-old's mother is wrong to want to pry, but that society should be structured in such a way that this would be considered outrageous.