In the 21st century answers can range from 18 to 21 through to 26 and all the way up to the early 30s. Sociologists have invented an intermediate phase between childhood and adulthood, a stage of extended adolescence that is said to last until the late 20s.
Once upon a time there was a clear distinction between the way schools and universities treated their students. Unlike schoolchildren, university students were treated as young adults, capable of independent living and learning.
This distinction gradually has eroded as institutions of higher education have become reorganised around the expectation that their students require paternalistic support.
This cultivation of emotional dependency among undergraduates is the hallmark of what psychologists label infantilisation — a label that once applied only to the phenomenon of maternal overprotection of children at a young age.
One symptom of this on campus is the growing involvement of parents in their children’s higher education. There was a time young people going off to university left their parents behind. Today universities produce promotional material that explicitly is addressed to parents.
University websites often address the parents of would-be applicants. Such communications assume it is the parents who are taking the initiative in the application process.
The University of Adelaide website features stories from parents who have approached the institution for help. The university organises “regular parent and guardian events” and publishes a parents newsletter. One wonders how soon it will be before it organises parents and teachers evenings.
The infantilisation of higher education is based on the premise that undergraduates are emotionally vulnerable and lack the psychological resources for the conduct of independent life. Universities throughout the Anglo-American world portray the transition from secondary to higher education as a variant of the psychological upheaval that primary school pupils experience when they enter high school.
A brochure targeting parents, published by the University of Tasmania, states that the “type of support you provided for your child during earlier transitions, such as from primary to high school, is still just as important in making decisions about going to university”.
Indeed, the literature universities publish for parents often sounds as if they assume that potential undergraduates are biologically mature children.
One of the consequences of the infantilisation of the academy is that the normal existential problems of students frequently are recast as psychological issues.
Throughout history students have been anxious about preparing for and writing their exams. In recent years worried students are treated to a variety of stress-busting therapies. Universities provide chill rooms and soft toys to help students relieve their stress.
During the lead-up to exams last year, the University of Canberra provided a petting zoo as part of its “stress less week”. This initiative gave students an opportunity to bond with cuddly animals. Students also were provided with sumo suits and bubbles to help ease their levels of stress.
Unfortunately, these well-meant initiatives by university administrators, designed as they are to insulate students from pressure, do little to encourage the habit of independence among young people.
The transformation of exam stress into a stand-alone emotional problem has the effect of encouraging students to believe they have a problem they cannot surmount on their own.
Many university administrators argue that their role as quasi-parents is necessitated by the fact undergraduates are no longer as independent minded as in the past. Back in 2003, an American study, Millennials Go to College , by Neil Howe and William Strauss, noted that this generation born between the early 1980s and 2000 is characterised as “closely tied to their parents” and insistent on a “secure and regulated environment”.
They predicted that in the future parental involvement in higher education would increase and would lead to an explicit partnership between students, parents and university authorities. Their assessment was based on the assumption that, unlike baby boomers and generation X, the millennial cohort of students would find it difficult to flourish in the less structured environment of higher education.
What has changed? Arguably, one of the most significant drivers of delayed adulthood is the precautionary child-rearing practices that prevail in Western societies. Preventing the exposure of children to the risks of everyday life now is perceived as the hallmark of responsible parenting.
As numerous scholars have noted, the widely held perception that children need constant supervision and protection has led to what I term paranoid parenting and others characterise as intensive or precautionary parenting.
Thirty to 40 years ago it was still possible to read criticism of some parents for being over-protective towards their offspring. But how often do we hear parents criticised for being overprotective today?
Mothers and fathers who allow their children to roam around the streets and parks on their own frequently are reproached for this practice by other parents and sometimes reprimanded or face sanctions from officialdom.
Many of the traits associated with the classic overprotective father or mother are likely to be celebrated by today’s experts as responsible parenting. Youngsters are frequently described as at risk. The question “At risk of what?” invites the response: “Of everything.”
Such a risk-averse orientation towards managing the life of young people is underpinned by the belief that children are innately fragile and vulnerable.
It is remarkable how public attitudes towards childhood are so rapidly drawn towards worst-case scenarios. So a playground is seen not as an open space where children can run around, mess about and have fun but as a hostile territory where youngsters face accidents, bullies and pedophiles.
Parents, of course, have always been concerned about the need to protect their children from harm. Asking what can go wrong is a sensible way of dealing with the numerous experiences that children encounter.
But asking what can go wrong is different from acting on the assumption that things will go wrong. Such an approach accomplishes the opposite of what it sets out to do.
When youngsters are constantly discouraged from engaging with the risks of everyday life, they miss out on important opportunities to learn sound judgments and build up their confidence and resilience.
The complex emotional tensions that are integral to the process of growing up are how young people learn to manage risks and gain an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.
Sadly, the process of infantilisation is good for neither our young people nor for higher education.