Age 18 Is NOT the Parenting Finish Line

When I was an eighteen-year-old college freshmen, during spring break my friends and I (all females) hitchhiked from a grimy bar in Matamoros, Mexico across the US border in a stranger’s van at 2AM in the morning.

Why??? Because we were eighteen and livin’ the dream! (Translation: we were being naive, risky and incredibly stupid in a drug-cartel-ridden city best known for kidnapping and murder.) And apparently this was our version of “problem solving” when after a few hours of karaoke and dancing around the dirt floor of a bar with some charming locals, we discovered that we were stranded on the wrong side of the border—with no money and no means of transportation back to our hotel in South Padre Island, Texas.

We were also VERY lucky as the driver of the creepy white van who picked us up along a dark road on the outskirts of town must have been a patron saint of foolish college coeds disguised as a nice young man from Texas. He safely drove us home without incident. Disaster averted. (Thank you, God! Seriously, you sent us an angel that night, didn’t you?)

Needless to say, this less-than wise decision was just one example that proved I hadn’t mastered “adulting” at eighteen-years-old. (I still haven’t really mastered adulting, but at least I’m self-aware of it and certainly not hitching rides in stranger’s vans in Mexico.)

Now, as the mom of a son who will turn 18 and head off to college next year, I can’t help but cringe when I hear people say they’re looking forward to parenting being “done” when their kids turn eighteen and leave the nest.

Frankly, it’s just hogwash.

Some things change when kids turn eighteen, but not everything

The idea that kids reach adult maturity at age eighteen has been around a long time. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we’ve established significant legal milestones on the 18th birthday. For instance, when my son turned eighteen:

  • I lost all access to his medical records and information
  • He can vote (yikes!)
  • He can enlist in the military and go fight in a war.
  • He can go to “big boy” prison (with serial killers and drug cartels) if he commits a crime.
  • He can get his own credit cards—and wreck his credit score for a decade.
  • I won’t even be able to attend his course planning sessions at college orientation (a painful fact I learned while ugly-crying on the other side of the adviser’s door at his older sister’s college orientation)

Because of my legal guardianship abruptly ending when my son turns eighteen, it’s easy to feel like the world is has declared this is the final product of the child I raised and that my parenting job has officially ended—like I’ve completed the course and crossed the finish line of the final exam.

Dear imaginary parenting exam proctor: I’m NOT finished yet, and neither is he! Your nerve-wracking call for “Pencils down, hands up” is bogus!

I have two bones of contention to pick with you, and here’s what they are:

  1. First, an eighteen-year-old’s brain is still developing. (Please continue reading for the real science behind this!)
  2. Secondly, I’M NOT DONE YET, and I don’t appreciate being told “Parenting is over—here’s your final grade on this project!” (We’ll get to that in a minute.)


News Alert: Brain science agrees with me!

The idea that my eighteen-year-old son has reached adult maturity is plainly ridiculous. Have you met him? He’s a smart, wonderful kid, and I’m so proud of him, but he appears consistently incapable of thinking beyond his own needs. (Especially about anything occurring beyond tomorrow.)

I’ve tried my best to teach him all of the important life skills, but there are so many, and there hasn’t been enough time for him to practice! He’s still overwhelmed at the thought of scheduling a series of physical therapy appointments on his own—let alone battle with health insurance claims. His mastery of cooking stops at pancakes. He always mixes his light and dark laundry and doesn’t read garment labels (yup, he was the varsity baseball pitcher in the pink pants!) He gets ridiculously grumpy about “having” to hand-write thank you notes. He leaves a massive trail of dirty socks, fast food cups, athletic cups, and other various sports equipment all over the house. He drives too fast and can’t parallel park without running over my petunias. And he has something that smells like rotting meat in his bedroom and he. Doesn’t. Even. Care.

So…he’s still exactly what most normal teenagers are like—and nothing magical happened on his 18th birthday that turned him into a fully functioning adult.

Also, I remember what I was like at eighteen and clearly “mature” isn’t the word I’d use to describe myself.

And fortunately it’s not just some maturity deficit that runs in our family, because recent brain science confirms: a teenager’s brain is NOT fully developed at eighteen-years-old.

>>Related: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains

This brain research is actually really interesting (and relieving for parents!). People used to believe that kids’ brains were 95% developed by age six (as if!). And since puberty has fully occurred by age eighteen, kids were considered adults at that point.

But thanks to MRI technology and advances in neuroscience in the last decade, we have a much clearer picture of the structure and functioning that occurs inside a teenager’s brain. It’s now believed that their brains are only at 80% of full maturity by age eighteen, and often aren’t done completing the full synapse connections until the age of 25-30.

So basically my teenage son’s brain is like a pan of under-cooked brownies: firm around the perimeter but still squishy in the center.

Kami Gilmour
Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of 5 teen and young adult kids. She’s the author of a new book that chronicles her imperfect journey of parenting in this season with a refreshing sense of honesty, humor, and practical insights:  Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent’s Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly. Kami is also the co-creator of SoulFeed college care packages, the faith-based care package that feeds college students what matters most, and co-host at They Say Podcast where overshares her crazy (sometimes inappropriate) stories.

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