Maybe I’m mistaken, but there seems to be this widely accepted belief that maturity is defined by one’s ability to take something seriously. In this instance, what I mean by “serious” is: "of grave or somber disposition, character, or manner” (dictionary.com). When someone laughs at a poop joke, we accuse them of being immature because, as dictated by our superiors, our elders, and our predecessors, poop is not funny. In fact one may be accused of being “childish” for laughing in certain situations deemed inappropriate for joviality by society. We look to those who have matured physically in order to know what it means to mature mentally, wrongfully synthesizing two completely disconnected ideas. Maturity of mind does not come intrinsically with physical growth.
In order to better comprehend the idea of maturity, the first thing to do would be to establish what exactly it means to be mature in the mental or psychological sense. Dictionary.com offers this definition for mature: “to complete or perfect” or “to come to full development.” This doesn’t really help us in establishing what it means to complete one’s mental development, though. Wikipedia offers a much more precise definition:
"Maturity is a psychological term used to indicate how a person responds to the circumstances or environment in an appropriate and adaptive manner. This response is generally learned rather than instinctive, and is not determined by one’s age. Maturity also encompasses being aware of the correct time and place to behave and knowing when to act appropriately, according to the situation and the culture of the society one lives in.”
*WARNING, SEVERE NERD SIDE-TRACK COMMENCING*
A few years ago I started comparing maturity and psychological growth to an MMORPG I played for a very long time called Ragnarok Online. You see, in this game, your character begins as a Novice at level 1. Your Novice has 6 stats: Strength (str), Agility (agi), Vitality (vit), Dexterity (dex), Intelligence (int), and Luck (luk) which you can increase as you gain experience and grow in level. When you first start the game at level 1, each stat has 1 point in them (it’s actually more complicated than that, but to keep things simplified we’ll assume this is the case). As you fight monsters, complete quests, and venture through the game gaining experience points, your character levels up, to a maximum of level 99. But unlike most other RPGs, your character will not grow stronger automatically just by leveling up; in other words, none of your stats will increase automatically. You need to distribute the Stat Points you accumulate from leveling manually. How you distribute your points is entirely up to you; it will never happen automatically. Therefore, you could choose to hold on to your stat points and keep each stat at 1 all the way up to level 99, never growing stronger despite all the experience you’ve gained.
If you don’t already see the comparison I’m making, the character’s level indicates age or physical growth, while the stat points we pool after gaining experience is our psychological growth; we have to make an effort to grow and learn. Simply “leveling up” does not mean we are automatically more mature or learned.
Referring back to the Wikipedia quote, what does it mean to act appropriately? This will change depending on the society you’re in, but more often than not “appropriately” tends to mean “seriously.” Don’t laugh at poop, don’t smile at anger, don’t joke about death, don’t have fun when others are hurting, don’t giggle about sex, don’t insult people (especially when the insults are true), these are all things that define how our society views maturity, and are all directly connected to the overarching theme of seriousness.
This is exactly why the term “childish” gets pegged as the opposite of maturity. You see, children don’t have the same sort of mental filters as adults; instead, they do whatever it is they feel like doing in the moment. They will cry when they are sad, yell when they are angry, stare when they are interested, and say what they think without giving regard to what’s accepted as appropriate. In this way children will inevitably choose many paths commonly considered “immature.”
If to define maturity we are talking about an ability to restrain one’s natural inclinations or emotions toward an event, I would agree that “childish” is an accurate description of its opposite. But the way I understand psychological maturity is not based around one’s ability to suppress emotions or not feel them, but to have the knowledge of knowing when it is or is not acceptable to openly express them, which is different from never expressing them at all.
For instance: say you are at a funeral. Someone says something that you find humorous, but you are aware that the folks around you may be offended by laughter in such a sombre event. Maturity does not dictate that you should not find something humorous, but that you should not express that humor in an inappropriate way, such as laughing out loud. Instead, a smile accompanied by a soft chuckle or “hm” of amusement would be much more acceptable, and would allow you to express yourself rather than repress your feelings.
Earlier today I was riding down the highway with my friend on our respective motorcycles, when suddenly he drove by me, threw his head to the side and pointed at me with a hand shaped like a gun, proceeding to act as though he were shooting me in a drive-by. We proceeded to commence a scene similar to that of an action movie for the duration of our time driving home, shooting at one another with our finger-pistols, ducking our heads low beneath our windshields and swerving about the road—safely, nothing ridiculous, always staying in our lanes—to represent evasive maneuvers. Was this childish? Of course! Was it immature? I don’t think so.
The purpose of maturity should not be to gauge one’s ability to be serious, but rather to denote one’s ability to know when it is and is not appropriate to be childish. I am very childish very often, because I find that there is far too little time in life to spend it being so serious about things that don’t matter. But that does not mean that I am immature, because I know how and when to be serious. I’m serious about my music, I’m serious about my tumblr posts and philosophies, and I’m serious about making the most of my life and enjoying what I can. I can do these things and depict childish traits simultaneously, and that’s what I think true maturity is.