There Is Probably Almost Never A Good Reason To Call Someone "Immature"

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “maturity” and “immaturity” again, ever since reading this Captain Awkward column about a person (context suggests that the letter writer is female) whose boyfriend is very close with his ex and supports that ex emotionally all the time. Letter Writer is concerned about this, but the boyfriend dismisses her concerns, saying that his previous girlfriends were “mature” enough to understand his special relationship with his ex.

Among other things, Captain Awkward advises her to make some space for herself–hang out with other people, sleep alone back at home more, etc–and explains:

I say this partly because one of your questions was “Am I not being mature enough?” and I have to tell you that an older man talking to a younger woman about her “maturity” when he’s trying to get her to endorse something that makes her uncomfortable sends a red flag up in my peripheral vision and causes immediate and severe side-eye. Your boyfriend may have good reasons for behaving as he does with M., given their history, but the “I thought you were more mature and could handle it” defense is straight out of the manipulative asshole playbook. If you need a tutorial on how to appropriately react to such patronizing bullshit, here’s Prince:

Prince gives the side-eye and the fuck-you stroll.

(Yes, I had to leave in the Prince gif.)

This got me thinking: is there ever a good reason to tell someone that they are “immature,” or to tell them to be more “mature”? Could calling someone “immature” generally be mean and manipulative at best, abusive at worst?

My earliest memories of this involve my parents calling me “immature” when I was probably 11 or 12 or so. I no longer remember what caused them to say that, but it was probably because I was having “inappropriate” emotions or failing to have “appropriate” emotions, or because I was seeing things in a black-and-white way. (Incidentally, that is something I still do in certain circumstances, usually when I feel threatened and am trying to protect myself. When I feel more safe and secure, I tend to think in a very nuanced way.)

Even as a preadolescent child, I understood that their statements were ridiculous and said more about them than about me. How does it make any sense to call a child “immature”? Compared to whom? How is a child supposed to mature themselves on demand? And if you understand that this is impossible, then why call a child “immature”?

(As you can imagine, some adults adored child-me, and others really didn’t.)

More than anything, these comments felt like a power play, a way to make me feel guilty and wrong without any clear way forward. Supposing there is such a thing as maturity, some of it is clearly based on biological processes that people can’t generally control (develop, prefrontal cortex, damn you!), while other aspects of it are probably based on choices an individual makes and experiences they have as a result. Children can and do make meaningful choices in their own lives, but their lives are also largely determined and constrained by adults with power. If there was something I could’ve done to increase my “maturity,” clearly, I needed to be told. For instance, “When you’re upset at someone, remember that they are as complex a person as you.” Or, “Sometimes you need to take risks to get what you want.” Or whatever. I’m not actually sure what sort of advice 11-year-old me would’ve needed.

An adult calling a child immature is, while completely unhelpful and possibly hurtful, slightly less concerning to me than an adult calling another adult immature, or implying that if the other adult is mature, then they will understand some situation or other. If you’re dating someone that you look down upon as “immature,” why are you dating them? It seems that the only acceptable thing to do is to either 1) say something like “I feel like we’re at different stages in our lives right now” and break it off, or 2) find a way to reframe your partner’s supposedly “immature” traits in a way that isn’t degrading to them. Though I’m not actually sure how to accomplish the second one.

I’m also reminded of a fantastic post by Tumblr user erikalynae:

Gather round kids while I explain this manipulation tactic that men perpetually try to use and why it’s bullshit.
If someone is openly showing interest in you by making disparaging or disappointed comments about your age, they’re trying to put you on the defensive. This guy wants me to try to quell his discomfort, to bring up that I’m only a month shy of 20, etc. - he wants me to try to prove myself to him, that I’m mature and adult enough for a man like him.
His goal is to establish a power imbalance right off the bat. If we were to date, I would constantly be on the defensive, constantly striving to be an equal, constantly trying to prove my “adult” credentials. Anything he says or does or wants from this point on that I object to would just be seen as a strike against my age, proof that he was right and that I’m not mature enough for him. This is how SO MANY men pressure younger individuals (primarily women and girls) into situations and relationships they aren’t comfortable with. If he truly thought I was too young for him, he wouldn’t have messaged me. This is a very calculated move, and it’s fucking gross.
Adult relationships with age gaps are completely fine, but only if all parties view each other as equals. If someone is trying to set you up in a way that ensures that’s never a possibility, run far away.

Gather round kids while I explain this manipulation tactic that men perpetually try to use and why it’s bullshit.

If someone is openly showing interest in you by making disparaging or disappointed comments about your age, they’re trying to put you on the defensive. This guy wants me to try to quell his discomfort, to bring up that I’m only a month shy of 20, etc. – he wants me to try to prove myself to him, that I’m mature and adult enough for a man like him.

His goal is to establish a power imbalance right off the bat. If we were to date, I would constantly be on the defensive, constantly striving to be an equal, constantly trying to prove my “adult” credentials. Anything he says or does or wants from this point on that I object to would just be seen as a strike against my age, proof that he was right and that I’m not mature enough for him. This is how SO MANY men pressure younger individuals (primarily women and girls) into situations and relationships they aren’t comfortable with. If he truly thought I was too young for him, he wouldn’t have messaged me. This is a very calculated move, and it’s fucking gross.

Adult relationships with age gaps are completely fine, but only if all parties view each other as equals. If someone is trying to set you up in a way that ensures that’s never a possibility, run far away.

Although I obviously can’t draw too many conclusions from one advice letter, the boyfriend in the Captain Awkward column really sounds like he’s pulling this exact move. By framing “understanding” or “not understanding” his special connection with his ex as a matter of “maturity,” he forces the letter writer to either dismiss and ignore her own concerns, or adopt the defensive position of trying to prove her own maturity (and therefore the validity of her concerns). Of course, this is a catch-22. I was told all the time as a child that if I feel like I have to “prove” my maturity, that means I’m immature. Clearly, a woman who’s “mature” enough for LW’s boyfriend wouldn’t even be having these concerns! Because she would “understand.”

I do want to note, since people always want to derail things to discuss the specific example, that it’s entirely possible that LW really is being unreasonable about her boyfriend’s ex. But I don’t think so. It sounds like her boyfriend’s ex needs professional help, and it sounds like her boyfriend’s ex is really taking up a lot of her boyfriend’s time and this isn’t just Some Silly Jealousy Thing.

Regardless, there is a way for the boyfriend to frame this in a better and less red-flaggy way: “I need a partner who will be okay with the fact that I have an ex that I’m very close with and support emotionally.” There. That’s it. Anyone who will not be okay with this will not be a good partner for him. It doesn’t matter if it’s because she’s “immature” or “needy” or “jealous” or judgmental about mental illness or just someone who wants a lot of time and dependability in a relationship. It literally doesn’t matter. Everyone gets to have their needs, and everyone gets to have their boundaries.

Too often the word “immature” becomes a way to vent one’s frustrations with a child or partner or whatever without actually having to state what the issue is or provide any way for it to be resolved. A child who gets anxious and cries when it’s time for school isn’t anxious, they’re “immature.” A partner who has different priorities than you in their life right now isn’t having different priorities in their life right now, they’re “immature.” If your partner were “mature,” then they would understand you and your needs and be able to work with them. If your child were “mature,” they wouldn’t be causing you problems.

If you feel the urge to tell someone in your life that they’re being immature, try tabooing that word first–it may lead to a more productive conversation. But more important than the words you choose is acknowledging that people behaving in ways that are inconvenient for you doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

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There Is Probably Almost Never A Good Reason To Call Someone "Immature"

10 thoughts on “There Is Probably Almost Never A Good Reason To Call Someone "Immature"

  1. 1

    “I need a partner who will be okay with the fact that I have an ex that I’m very close with and support emotionally.”

    This still feels a little passive-aggressive. I’d unpack it as “I’m the great kind of person who will help others in need. I have an ex who needs emotional support, and I’m going to provide that because I’m just that kind of great guy. You need to choose: either you need to break up with me [because I’m a great guy]; or, you want to stay with me [without ever voicing concerns over any interactions I have with my ex, no matter how intimate].”

    Far better, I think, would be a response that validates LW’s feelings and concerns, and is geared toward find a satisfactory arrangement based on respect for each other’s feelings and values.

    “I have an ex with whom I’ve stayed very close, and who needs my emotional support. Because I still care about them, it is important to me that I provide that support. What concerns do you have about such a relationship? In what ways do you feel it could impact our relationship or be hurtful to you? Are there guidelines or boundaries we can establish for how I interact with my ex, which would address those concerns while still allowing me to support my ex?”

    1. 1.1

      Yeah, when I said “frame,” I didn’t mean that those are the literal words he should say to his girlfriend. I meant that that’s the way he should think of it in his head, rather than “A mature woman would understand.” You’re right.

  2. 2

    With kids, I think that the opposite comment can be very beneficial, ie. “You handled that mean thing that Kayley did to you in a very mature way.” So it’s not as if we need to ditch the concept of maturity entirely. But you make a lot of good points about the word.

    1. 2.1

      I tend to agree, although I also think that comments that highlight the specific good thing the child did would be more useful for helping them know what to do in the future. For instance, “You did such a great job at being kind even when someone is being mean to you,” or “I’m really proud of you for walking away and taking care of yourself when Kayley was being mean.”

  3. 4

    I think degree of exposure has a lot to do with which comments are useful and which aren’t. Having not been exposed to “you are immature” a lot personally means that if it *is* brought up, I often take it as a serious critique of my persona.

    Comparatively, I’ve heard “be a man”, “don’t think about it, just do it” and “pray to God” a huge amount in my life. Just as you feel the immaturity comment says more about the speaker than it does about you, so I feel about those 3 comments.

    Are they genuine? Possibly. But my lived experiences make me filter them guiltlessly as “this person is manipulative and unhelpful”. To a person with less exposure to those comments, they might get more mileage out of them, as I do from when I am called immature.

  4. 5

    If an 11 or 12 year old can’t be immature, who can?

    I agree with Anthony Wu that the examples he cites are manipulative and not at all helpful, as is “immature” in any but the most technical sense.

  5. 6

    Late last year, I had been invited to a party of an acquaintance. I’d accepted the invitation months prior. But the Friday of the party rolled around, and my project at work had gone to shit. My anxiety was flaring up, and I really wanted to either a) sleep, or b) work on the project to catch up on the deadline.

    But I’d made a commitment, so I went along anyway to show my face and say hello. Took a bunch of painkillers to dull the edge of my headache and headed out. I put in a solid 45 minutes of chatting with people I didn’t know, despite everything.

    After 45 minutes, I went up to the host to say goodbye. By this time, it was clear to anyone looking at me that I was about ready to drop. He had been chatting with two people I didn’t know at the time. Both of them were, apparently, adults.

    The host asked what was wrong, and I filled him in that I wasn’t feeling good, I was on a lot of painkillers, and really just needed to get home and get some rest. The host himself was polite and charming about it. But his two friends, for reasons that escape me, decided to hassle me about it.

    I can’t remember exactly what they said, but it was something derisive about being weak and manly if I couldn’t stay out past 10:30, in the guise of encouraging me to stay out longer than I was able to do so.

    I was over it, so I snapped at them. Something along the lines of: “Do you do this immature playground peer pressure bullshit to everyone you’ve just met, or am I special?”

    They got a bit affronted and stalked off, and the host apologized to me for their behavior. I left and went home.

    If I’d been less over the edge I would’ve been calmer. But, in context, I think the snap and the language I used were fully justified.

    So I’d say that ‘immature’ does have redeeming value: When the behavior being described actually is genuinely immature.

  6. 7

    I think I get what you’re trying to say but I don’t think it’s really about the idea of maturity in general or the word “immature” and its usage. There are very valid reasons to call out immature attitudes and actions when we see them. Many times immaturity is harmful. When transgender rights conversations inevitably become about who is using what bathroom I often ask if we can move on and have a more mature conversation. Because our obsession with, as Bill Maher puts it, “peepee parts” really is childish and very immature. Our attitudes about sex in America are also immature. We’re obsessed. It’s either this near-mystical Earth-shattering experience that will rock your world or a dirty evil little secret that will steal your innocence and should only be done in wedlock specifically to procreate by sufficiently shameful Christian preferably white couples who don’t enjoy it. That’s immature and the people who carry those attitudes are immature. The Men’s Rights Movement is immature and their members are by and large very immature. I would know, I follow them on Facebook. That was the first thing I “liked” so I could make sure to get a direct line to their bullshit and see all of it. I do that with some right wing groups too. It helps to know exactly what you’re fighting against. Anyway, “movement” that pretends to be concerned with legitimate issues like fathers’ rights and incarceration rates but in practice only shits on women every chance it gets is immature. I think all three of those are things most of us would agree fall under the umbrella of immaturity and should be acknowledged as such.

    I think a lot of us tend to avoid nuance to make points. We do that too often. Even if we’re making valid points we can’t do that. It’s not logically sound and many times manipulative and dishonest. I think we have to consider the positive consequences along with the negative ones. The word “immature” is not the problem. Immaturity is, however, a problem. And it can do real harm. I get that you have good intentions and I think there are some points to be made there. But I also think your conclusion is wrong. A better solution than proposing a blanket moratorium on the word “immature” would be to try to educate people about ways people try to manipulate them so it won’t work. Because, again, you’re talking about emotional manipulation. Not the word “immature.” There are good reasons to use it. And times when you should use it. It seems as though you’re reacting to specific situations and circumstances and trying to apply those to a different topic. The theme of this post seems to be men manipulating women, not whether immaturity is a valid concept. The ways women tend to be mistreated in our society is a valid topic and should be discussed. And if that’s the conversation you want to have then by all means. I’m right there with you. But that’s not the same conversation as whether we should use the word or concept at all. They’re separate things. “Don’t use the concept of immaturity to manipulate people or bully them” is not equal to “don’t use it at all.” Overreacting in any direction isn’t productive. We have to keep a level head about these things or we won’t be taken seriously and that doesn’t help anyone. We need to rise above that so we don’t give people convenient excuses to dismiss legitimate points.

    1. DC
      7.1

      There may be good reasons to object to situations, people, attitudes, etc.; but calling them “immature” functions as a thought-stopping cliche. All it does is compare them to things society disapproves of in children. This is offensive on so many levels, but just as importantly, it obscures a much more important question: what is it, specifically, about the situation/person/attitude that you find objectionable?

      This is similar to calling something “pseudo-science.” It’s become a generic sneer that prevents anyone from focusing on the actual problem: why is this thing a bad source of information? Is it dishonest? Incomplete? Founded on non-sequiturs? That’s a conversation I’d actually like to witness, because it provides information instead of merely disapproval.

      This is all over and above the manipulative power of “immature” and its ilk. Some of us who, as kids, used to pride ourselves on being “mature” didn’t realize that that just meant obeying/emulating/not disagreeing with or offending adults. Later, we discovered that some of those adults were full of shit–they were demoralizing us into not noticing or objecting to their shit by calling us “immature” whenever we did. But that’s a non-sequitur in itself: the logic goes something like, “Kids are bad and you’re acting like one, therefore I win.” Totally empty, non-specific, thought-stopping, manipulative, ageist nonsense. And yet it’s so easy to fall for because, even as adults, we associate “maturity” (paradoxically enough) with being well-behaved as children!

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