"An 18 year old boy is basically a 15 year old girl, when it comes to maturity!" or "‘Girls are just so much more mature. They grow up quicker, you know?"
I cannot tell you how often I hear sentences like these. Especially in Black or African households. It has become this widely accepted wisdom… only it’s not exactly wise!
I have always hated this “Girls are more mature than boys” narrative because it is false. I think most people use it in a way that implies that women are born smarter and that we somehow learn things faster. It fails to acknowledge the fact that women are forced to become more mature by our societal norms. If you expect boys to be childish and immature, you will allow them to be childish and immature and that’s exactly what they will be. If you expect girls to grown up and mature faster, you will be harder on them and you will teach them more responsibility. Thus creating an environment where girls are the reliable, nurturing ones, and boys are the wild, playful ones.
I recently read a book that left me completely raw - Grown by Tiffany D Jackson ( I have reviewed it here) and I was discussing said book with a dear friend of mine who agreed with the fact that we socialize girls to mature faster than boys but then he asked me why I thought of this as a bad thing. So… I figured I’d share my answer with you all because I truly believe that this paternalistic idea that appears positive on the surface actually has far-reaching consequences.
Grown little girls
The right to err is something that women are often denied as grown ups but even more so, as young girls because we expect them to grow up fast. The first time that I was told that girls mature faster than boys, I was in school. Some friends and I were doing something stupid - I don’t remember exactly what it was. I do remember getting yelled at by my teacher who explained that as girls, we should have known better. She made it clear that she wasn’t surprised that the boys had been involved but that we should have known to stop them right away.
That was not an isolated incident and I’m sure you have also seen similar things in popular media, social media or even in your actual life. What that results in is girls who start to avoid things that they found fun in case it could appear immature. They start to only play games that involve responsibilities and they start to question simple behaviours that they could learn from, because they are trying to think like the adults that they are far from being.
The helpful daughters that become "super mothers"
I used to think that this was a Congolese problem and then books taught me that it was a worldwide problem. Twitter then showed me that first daughters in African households are probably the biggest victims of this mindset. Often, we cajole girls ( older or not) into helping around the house and looking after their siblings, while boys ( Older or not) are allowed to play. This is mostly a problem because it creates a pattern for the men in our lives. Girls learn from a young age that they are expected to know how to do it all while boys learn to be taken care of.
I remember being so fascinated by the boys in my first year of university who did not know how to do the most basic things for themselves. They were just starting to learn things ( some were outright refusing to learn and they didn’t have to because their girlfriends or female friends would handle it for them) that my 12 year old sister had already mastered. Of course, in my confirmation bias, I took it as proof that we do mature faster when really… It had nothing to do with their maturity at all.
Carrying the load
I mentioned above that many girls would handle the workload for young men because it is usually the case and it is not limited to physical labor. This notion that girls mature faster often means that girls have to step up and do all of the emotional work - things like prompting communication, remembering important dates, giving emotional support and etc. We expect this kind of thoughtfulness from women but excuse the insensitivity, and sometimes downright rudeness, of men.
One of the flipsides of this is girls then start to believe that they can handle things that they are simply too young for and predators use this to their advantage. 25 year old men are always very quick in telling 18 year old girls that they are “mature for their age” and people use this to justify romantic relationships where there is a very significant power gap. Here’s the thing, we all get to a point in adulthood where an age gap doesn’t really matter as much anymore but that late teens - early twenties bit? That’s not it!
The burden of being the “bigger person”
Part of being mature, is being “the adult”, “the voice of reason”, or “the bigger person” in certain situations. This is a task that often falls on the girl’s shoulders because we teach them from a young age that they have a “maturity” advantage. In doing so, we are covertly justifying behaviours in boys that should not be tolerated and it puts girls in the position of having to accept and forgive rather than challenge those inappropriate behaviours from their male counterparts.
This leads to the same problem I have mentioned before: It creates a pattern! Sadly, it is one that we then take into adulthood. Because boys do not know better, we expect men who are in our age groups to know less than we do. That’s why you hear women say things like “My husband is basically my first child”.
What exactly is maturity, anyway?
In my opinion, the biggest issue with this whole idea stems from the fact that we never actually explain to girls what maturity is. People define maturity differently and because we live in a patriarchal society, many of the things that we consider mature have to do with preserving sexist social norms.
To sum up, believing that girls become women earlier than boys become men is one of the ways we justify how much we expect of them. Leading not only to infantilized men who do not understand until much later in life ( some never do) that they have to grow up emotionally but also young girls and women who wear certain aspects of maturity like a badge of honor, even when it harms them.