I asked my 5-year-old what it means to be an adult, and his answer provided fascinating insight into the way kids interpret the world

Steven JohnThe author, Steven John, and his family.
  • It’s difficult for young children to conceptualize the feeling of life as an adult.
  • Children tend to only identify outwardly obvious differences between childhood and adulthood, such as physical size.
  • On deeper reflection, my own son realised how many things his mother and I do that he and his sister never worry about and identified having responsibilities as a facet of growing up.

From the moment my son wakes up each day, every minute until bedtime is a running conversation between him, my wife, and myself, with our infant daughter doing her best to get a “word” in edgewise, that word usually coming out as “dada” or “cat,” or whatever “yaya” means. (We think it’s “mum.”)

On the daily drive to school, I often take advantage of a brief pause in his flow of words to ask him a question I hope will be meaningful.

Sometimes I’ll ask who he hopes to play with at recess, hoping to foster a connection with yet another classmate. Other times I’ll ask what he is most enjoying learning about that week, planting the seed to enjoy studies as much as playground time.

And sometimes, I’ll get a bit more existential, as I’m simply fascinated to see what’s going on in his rapidly developing brain.


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To that end, this morning I glanced at Ben in the rearview mirror and said: “Hey, what does it mean to be an adult?”

Uncharacteristically, Ben’s answer was not immediately forthcoming. He paused for a long moment, before initially answering with another out of character response: “I don’t know.”

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” I said, a moment later adding the truly profound prompt: “Think about it.”

“I guess it means to be old … to be big … and to be tall,” he said after another pause. And while I took umbrage at the old part, he’s not wrong.

But knowing Ben as I do – this is a kid who can describe how to use simple machines to move water uphill and who taught me how to edit the background of an image on his Macbook, among other precocities – I figured he probably had more to say on the topic, I just had to lead him without putting words in his mouth.

“What does it mean beyond physical characteristics? Like beyond like size and being old, do you think?”

“Well,” he said, “I mean you can drive a car, you cook and stuff, and you have to take care of things like take care of me and Scarlett.” (That’s our daughter, his sister.)

“What do you call those things? Like driving and cooking and cleaning?” I asked. “What do you call the stuff mummy and I have to do as adults.”

“Responsibilities?”

“Right! So do adults have more responsibilities?”

“Um … yeah,” he answered.

“So do you think it’s different to be an adult than a kid?”

He shook his head and said, “No.” I asked the same question, about whether or not life was different as an adult or child, in a few ways, and he consistently felt that it wasn’t.

As academically smart as my son is, his brain is simply not yet developed enough to fully conceive of one person’s experience of life as being dramatically different than his own. Sure, I might be older, taller, and drive a car, but my experience of life must be just like his, right?

Well, no. It’s not. But that’s for me to know, not him. Because he’s five years old, and I’m a full grown adult. Whatever that means

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