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Do you think you’re a grown up? Do you even want to be? For many of us the answer is a resounding no to both questions. Our reluctance to take on a title that has more in common with baby boomers and the 1960’s is understandable. It’s reflected in the rise of the term “adulting” and the decline of people who have never spent an entire day lying on their couch, binge watching an entire series on Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Go.

After asking multiple people from all walks of life what they think it means to be an adult, I can summarize the majority of opinions with a TV reference: Mad Men. Adults pay bills, keep their homes in order, and do their laundry. Maybe they have children, and they most certainly go to work. But this limited understanding is no longer useful. It is as outdated as MySpace and saying anything of value in more than 140 characters.

This traditional view of what happens after you turn 21 is rooted in functionality and inappropriately labelled with the culminating term “grown up”– as if once achieved, you have nowhere else to go. Which isn’t true. My father, who is in his 70’s, likes to say that he is now going through “reverse maturity”, which I love because it makes my point so directly. Every one of us is continually growing and changing at a unique pace. There is no such thing as a “grown up.” And experience has shown me that there are many people who pay their bills, dry clean their clothes, and invest wisely in their careers, but are nowhere near deserving to be labeled “adult”.

So let’s put some of these obsolete terms behind us and embrace a new concept of being chronologically over the age of 21. There is no one definition for adult or grown up and no age at which you are required to choose a set of behaviors. There is only where we are on a spectrum of growing as humans. As long as we’re alive, we are all “growing up.” What it means to be growing up has nothing to do with whether or not you make your bed or wash your dishes. It is about who you are becoming.

Here’s what actually makes you an adult:

You’re able to recognize the difference between a want and need.

Understanding what we need in our lives is a fundamental, evolving process. Distinguishing between these two involves a delicate dance of our finances, our health, our emotional state, and our future hopes. What I needed 10 years ago is deeply different than what I need today. There is room in this process for you to need to pay bills today and need to play World of Warcraft for 6 hours on Saturday. Providing yourself with a spa day and brunch is as much a part of being a “growing up” as is missing a happy hour to bring your friend extra tissues and medicine when they’re sick.

You make decisions based on your knowledge and opinions, not because of others or in spite of them

People in their twenties aren’t the only ones still making choices either to please their parents or to defy them. Many continue to make parenting and financial decisions well into their 40s, 50s and 60s based solely on either the fear of becoming their parents or the drive to be as good as they are. For the rest of our lives, we are all learning how to know ourselves independent of either our parents, friends, and countless others. But the truth is no matter what you decide some people will agree with you, some will disagree, and some just don’t care. So choose who you listen to carefully and keep everything in perspective. This process takes years of uncovering our fears, insecurities, and areas of complacency.

You care about something other than yourself

Probably the most jolting opinion of reaching adulthood is when you have a child. This is too simple and, honestly, proven untrue by the number of parents out there who are still completely selfish, focused only on their own wants, and demanding that their children conform to their idea of what is acceptable.

Being a parent does not count. Growing up requires the increasing ability to set aside your own comfort and wants. (But not our needs. Denying our needs only ends in more childlike behavior.)

This aspect of growth could be as simple as remembering a friend’s birthday or as deep and meaningful as making a career out of helping others. There is no one way to think and act beyond our own life and experience.

No matter how many bills you pay on time, if your entire life is dedicated to your own wants, you are a “grown up toddler”. So let’s stop looking at functional behaviors like cleaning the bathroom, keeping our desk organized or spending the day at Costco as evidence that we are “adulting”. Until our ever growing lexicon catches up with our current state of being, we can start by putting the term “grown up” in the fantasy category and begin to focus on “growing up” to be ever increasingly fulfilled people who can meet our own needs and the needs of others.

Dr. Mary DeRaedt Avatar

Mary DeRaedt, MS, LPC, NCC is a Licensed Professional Counselor, clinical supervisor, and counselor educator. Based at the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education, Mary specializes in approaching issues from a holistic perspective-- with areas of expertise including young adult life transitions, relationship problems, & trauma.