The role of every family is to lead the young to the state of maturity, a condition that is not determined by chronology. While boys and girls naturally grow and develop physically with age, they do not necessarily mature emotionally, socially, intellectually, or morally. Likewise, young adults may be twenty or thirty years old but yet show juvenile or adolescent behavior. Maturity begins when the young recognize their duties and obligations and learn that it is more blessed to give than to receive. When they cross the threshold from passivity to activity, the young also enter adulthood by an initiative that embraces risk, chance, and the possibility of failure. When the young acquire the social graces of appropriate behavior in matters of speech, dress, and civility, they earn the compliment of being a lady or a gentleman—one who never gives offense and always seeks to please. Another test of maturity is the virtue of magnanimity, the large-mindedness to rise above pettiness, meanness, spite, and resentment and to forget and forgive the offenses in the past.
In Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, the transformation of the wooden puppet into a real boy occurs when Pinocchio considers the happiness of his beloved aging father Gepetto before his own wishes and pleasures. Instead of living to play and living for the moment, Pinocchio learns to work and think about the future; instead of wasting food, time, and money, Pinocchio learns to control his appetite, use his opportunities, and appreciate the value of money and the cost of things. Instead of ignoring good advice and failing to learn from his mistakes, Pinocchio heeds the proverbial wisdom of his father (“Idleness is a dreadful disease, of which one should be cured immediately in childhood”) and obeys the moral teaching of his fairy godmother (“Because children who do not follow the advice of those who are wiser than they are, always come to grief”). After abandoning his books and going to Playland where he is turned into a donkey, Pinocchio finally acts with the maturity that earns him his new status as a real boy. Rising early every morning, “he got up before dawn to turn the windlass, so as to earn the cup of milk for his father,” and he weaves baskets for sale to provide for his aging father—a new disposition which earns him the praise of the Fairy Godmother: “Children who love their parents, and help them when they are sick and poor, are worthy of praise and love, even if they are not models of obedience and good behavior.”
In Homer’s Odyssey, the young Telemachus on the brink of manhood receives important instructions from Pallas Athena on the necessary steps to achieve maturity and enter manhood. First, he must call an assembly and assert himself before a rowdy group of men known as the Suitors who harass his mother Penelope to marry one of them on the assumption that her husband—absent from home for twenty years– has died in the Trojan War. Second, he must launch a ship and seek news of his missing father, demonstrating initiative, confidence, and leadership—a willingness to command a crew, to venture upon the ocean, and to assume responsibility and independence. Third, he must seek the advice of wiser, older men like Menelaus and Nestor who fought with his father in the war and demonstrate the poise and graciousness of a guest in the company of his distinguished hosts. To the ancient Greeks, a young man matures when he acts as “a speaker of words and a doer of deeds,” when he knows and acts with a sense of duty and responsibility, when he fearlessly takes chances and risks to do great good and oppose great evil, and when he enters the public arena with a competitive spirit to achieve a great good.
In Alcott’s Little Women, Amy March explains to her older sister Jo the importance of paying visits or making “calls” to friends and neighbors as a social obligation. Amy gives Jo certain instructions that reflect the proper manners of a young lady. Maturity, she explains, requires the keeping of promises, doing one’s duty, and being honorable. While Jo finds these visits silly, awkward, and unpleasant, Amy insists that “it’s a debt we owe society,” and she tells her unwilling sister, “Put on your best deportment. Don’t make any of your abrupt remarks, or do anything odd, will you?” While Amy recognizes the value of a good first impression, Jo finds the whole affair superficial and insincere. Amy communicates to her sister the art of pleasing others by the practice of the simple amenities and attention to the “little details” and the “little things.” It does not cost much and it gives great joy to many when a person pays a visit and acts agreeable, gracious, and affable in company. As Amy explains to Jo, to make a call on a friend or relative shows them respect and affection: “Aunt likes to have us pay her the compliment of coming in style, and making a formal call; it’s a little thing to do, but it gives her pleasure . . . .” Maturity, then, reveals restraint, courtesy, good taste, and propriety in matters of speech, dress, and conduct for the sake of pleasing others—putting others’ happiness first and one’s preferences last.
The mature learn from mistakes, desire to improve, and deliberately make efforts to overcome weaknesses, bad habits, and flaws. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the hero Mr. Darcy overcomes his aristocratic arrogance and the heroine Elizabeth Bennet conquers her prejudice. When Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal of marriage, she reprimands his conceit. She might have considered his proposal as a compliment “had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” His snobbery at the ball hurt Elizabeth’s feeling—his refusal to dance with her because “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” At the same time Elizabeth has attributed other faults to Darcy from gossip that she later regrets, the false report circulated by Mr. Wickham that Darcy deprived him of his inheritance—a lie that misrepresents Darcy’s character as a hardhearted, cruel, and unjust man. When Darcy in a letter exonerates himself from all these false charges that Elizabeth believed because it confirmed her original dislike of Darcy, she feels contrite and embarrassed: “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.” Both Darcy and Elizabeth apologize for their behavior, alter their ways, and present themselves in the most favorable light in their next encounter. The mature accept honest criticism with humility.
Despite Elizabeth’s irate refusal of Darcy’s marriage proposal and Darcy’s angry reactions to Elizabeth’s biased accusations, when they both meet by chance at Pemberley Woods, neither one acts resentful or embittered over their past relationship. Without the slightest trace of aristocratic pride, Darcy initiates conversation, greets Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle (Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner) cordially, inquires about the other members of the family, and acts like a magnanimous gentleman. Never before has Elizabeth seen him “so desirous to please, so free from self-consequence, or unbending reserve as now.” The aunt and uncle make the same observation, the aunt testifying that Darcy lacks every hint of arrogance (“I have seen nothing of it”) and the uncle commenting “He is perfectly well behaved, polite, and unassuming”). Without pique or animosity Elizabeth also acts with perfect civility and graciousness in this most awkward situation. Tempted to look away and avoid Darcy and blushing with embarrassment about their earlier quarrel, she nevertheless does not stoop to vindictive behavior or petty anger. She too is large-minded enough to forgive, forget, and show good will, gladly accepting Darcy’s invitation to dine with the family and meet his sister.
Maturity begins when children like Pinocchio overcome selfishness and idleness; when young men like Telemachus initiate, act, and bravely confront evil without intimidation; when young women acquire the civilizing social graces that elevate life with manners, good taste, dignity, and beauty; and when men and women like Darcy and Elizabeth rise above small-mindedness in the form of spite and grudges and demonstrate large minds and large hearts that can forgive the faults of others, forget the quarrels of the past, and give other persons a second chance. Courtship, marriage, family life, and all human relationships flourish as maturity governs the conduct of all persons—a maturity that is glaringly absent in much of modern culture.