When a child turns 18 in Nigeria, it’s often seen as the dawn of independence. However, Abdullahi Adewole had a different experience. In 2015, at the age of 19, he had not yet developed any signs of puberty, particularly in his private areas, and struggled with sleeping alone in a room at night.
He lacked the confidence to make his own decisions and was not interested in voting. During the 2015 election cycle, he couldn’t make political choices for himself. Additionally, he still relied on his brother, Kayode Adewole, for assistance when negotiating payment for his tilling work.
“My body said I was older, but I knew quite well that I was still a child at 18. I am not even sure that my sexual organs and hormones were working perfectly when I was 18,” Adewole told Prime Progress in Yoruba.
It was a significant challenge for him to find his voice, but he persevered, grappling to comprehend the societal consensus that 18 is the universally accepted age for maturity. He chose to share his personal story bravely, hopeful that doing so could help the world know what many young adults go through.
“I am happy to share this with you because I am over it now. But in Nigeria, we assume that people miraculously become mature and responsible as soon as they turn 18. This is not completely true,” he said confidently.
Whether or not Adewole is right, the complexity and uniqueness of human development underpin his position. Some Nigerian children, just like in any other country in the world, could still be childlike even after they have passed the legal maturity age like him, while others develop physically or psychologically even before then.
Rofiyat Adediran is one of those who developed quickly. Though she is now married with three kids, she told Prime Progress that she had been physically mature since she was 15. When she clocked 18, she was no longer an adult but had fit into the ‘club of women’.
“I had my first menstrual period at 13; I got deflowered at 14, and my body had been calling for consistent sexual intimacy at 17”, she said.
She doesn’t see herself as an untrained child but rather as someone who matured quickly compared to her peers. She believes she defies the parameters and general standards of adulthood. It was also difficult for society to accommodate her accelerated development.
“I am now a civil servant with a master’s degree. So, you can’t tell me that I was not serious; that was why I was like that. I was the best in my class, and I was brought up very well. But see, adulthood, physical development, and sexuality are bigger than the way Nigeria sees them,” she said.
While Adediran was physically mature, her mental and psychological state was unripe for adulthood, and she shouldn’t have been ushered into adult life at such a tender age.
So, how do we raise kids like Adediran, who might mature before 18, and consider that our brains keep developing, especially the decision-making part, well into adulthood? How can we ensure they grow up well-rounded?
Deborah Adeniyi, founder of Two People Online Therapy Services, told Prime Progress that she identifies that having children who are older than 18 but have not fully matured is a problem; the same goes for having children less than that age who think they have matured.
At least 65 million children (10–19 years old) live in Nigeria but have vastly different coming-of-age experiences. To accommodate them, Adeniyi says the crux of the work rests on the parents of the children.
“Parents need to do better. Setting high and unrealistic goals for their children is setting them up for failure,” she said.
In her view, having children who mature early or late is not a problem; managing them and setting them up for adult life is difficult.
To solve this puzzle, she suggests that parents should not assume that their children are mature or otherwise. They should not think that physical characteristics equate to maturity and adulthood because they are just situational upgrades.
Instead, they should train their wards and make them experience both the negative and positive sides of adulthood by exposing them to every necessary upbringing in their adolescent stage.
What about someone like Adewole without stable parenthood and guidance? She explained that children without stable upbringings should personalise their development.
“One of the reasons it was easy for me to adjust and settle into adulthood was that I knew my strengths and worked on my weaknesses. I honed my mental strengths and surrounded myself with people who were ready to lend a helping hand.
So, she advised that any child finding it hard to cope with maturity, even when they have reached the legal age, should seek help in every legitimate way they can. For those who look older than their age, she strongly believes that their physicality does not make them adults.
“That you have breasts or broad shoulders does not make you an adult if you don’t psychologically or mentally qualify. Many Nigerians get this really twisted. If we don’t properly groom our children, we may end up having 20-year-old CEOs crying because their firms are in little trouble,” she warned.
She feels that life throws many blows and punches at adults. Whereas only children who went through the drilling process of childhood can navigate these problems.
“Even when the government is trying to ensure that a child should not enter the university until he or she is 18, I have seen many parents who smuggle their children into tertiary institutions. They do an affidavit for them to meet the age requirements, only to leave these children to suffer and struggle with adult life.”
This singular inaction, according to her, has multiple consequences. The biggest of them is raising children, who are easily manipulated into committing crimes.