BIRDS instinctively know when and how to encourage their fledglings to leave the next. Humans don't. The rites of passage we do have -- religious ceremonies like bar mitzvahs and confirmations, even obtaining drivers' licenses and jobs and credit cards -- occur far too early in children's lives for parents to be comfortable.
My students are returning this week from visiting their family homes for the holiday break. Many have already complained that the nest just isn't the same: Younger siblings have encroached on their territory, and parents persist in treating them like the children they used to be.
Parents, too, have felt discomfort. To make room, they have rear ranged the furniture and cleaned out closets that have been catching odds and ends since September. And they devised strategies to get their fledglings to spend a few nights at home and to keep their private belongings out of the public areas of the house. Mostly parents worry about the ways they and their children will interact.
Today, conferring the rights of passage is trickier than it used to be. Back in the dark ages of the '60s, everyone was warned of impending adulthood through the arrival of Occasions, those important enough to enclose a substantial check with the greeting card. We were graduated from college. We married. We had our first child.
Our parents breathed a sigh of relief: Their job was clearly over in everyone's eyes. (Vestiges of this ancient practice remain in parents' -- especially fathers' -- constantly urging a daughter to get married even though a suitable bridegroom has yet to appear.)
Parents are reluctant to let a child grow up, I think, in part because of a certain nearsightedness. Unable to see the minute changes occurring from day to day, they struggle to find a miraculous lens that will suddenly let them view that child -- who was once literally a part of them -- as a newly independent being, apart from them, an adult.
And parents who send their children away to school may suffer from another form of myopia as well: They tend to freeze their children in time, mentally putting them in a Brigadoon-like state of suspended animation until the next visit. My parents seem to believe I am about 25, despite the frequent appearance of my 22-year-old son. I see him as being about 16.
These days we send cards at the slightest excuse: a bad day, moving in together, a divorce, a hangnail. Children get substantial checks for their eighth-grade graduations. They marry later or more frequently or not at all. And some children stay in school until they're almost 40, so it's hard to know when they've gotten serious enough about Life. Important Occasions aren't what they used to be.
Perhaps we should create some new rites of passage, new ways to signal to each other and to the rest of the world that adulthood has arrived. (The rights of adulthood, it seems, can only be conferred once; otherwise we will be even more confused than we are already. So the timing must be impeccable.)
The first Thanksgiving a child returns home often provides the opportunity for such rites. Visiting children may find themselves occupying a spare bedroom, their own having been turned into a den or sewing room. They may realize they have become a guest in their "own home." One student, I heard, was disappointed when his mother offered him beer instead of milk with dinner.
Children, too, can signal they are now adults. A former student found her mother treating her as an adult only after she could show off her new apartment, the physical sign of her independent life. Apparently her mother had had trouble visualizing her daughter keeping the bathroom clean and her clothes picked up. (I hasten to add that a clean bathroom is only an outward and visible sign that a child has accepted responsibility for herself. If clean bathrooms were the sole mark of maturity, we'd all be in trouble.)
Unfortunately, most of us want it both ways. A mother wants her children to support themselves, but she also wants them to stay close, to share their lives the way they once shared their hurts and their homework. That's why she reminds them to wear coats and in the next breath offers them beer.
Her children want to be independent, to fly free from the restrictions of their past, and yet they want to be taken care of, to be able to go back whenever they feel the need. That's why the same woman who was so overjoyed when her mother finally recognized her adulthood spent the next week at her father's, insisting that she be pampered by the whole family while she recovered from wisdom teeth extraction.
I suspect there are right and not-so-right ways to indicate you'd prefer to relate to your parents and offspring as adults. Playing at "host" and "guest" seems to work as long as everyone agrees on the rules.
I suppose parents could send out announcements: "Mr. and Mrs. John Doe proudly announce their daughter Kimberly Jean has attained the status of Adult." Or agree not to see their children for a while. The children could wait for the previous generation to die off and thus become adults by default. Or, like Peter Pan, they could all decide to remain boys and girls.
Judith Dobler teaches writing at Loyola College.