What began as a routine trip to pick up dinner turned into a sideshow of an adult who never grew up.
I’m waiting in line, spaced six feet from the person in front of me. A guy walks past me without a mask and asks if he can skip the queue and pick up his order.
A woman said, “Sir…” and pointed to her mask.
“Don’t need one,” he said. “I’m picking up, not ordering.”
He then spouted some nonsense about his bulletproof immune system and his objection to restrictions on his freedom. Before he could finish his diatribe, the restaurant’s owner cut in and said he too has freedom — the freedom to eject from his property anyone who refuses to wear a mask.
The guy pulled a mask from his pocket, put it on, and threw his hands up as he shuffled to the back of the line. He may have been an adult, but he was not a grown-up.
Real grown-ups treat others with respect and follow the rules of society. But those are the basics. These nine qualities truly set them apart.
1. They think for themselves.
One of my best friends from childhood constantly reposts sensationalized political talking points on social media without verifying accuracy — some of it denigrating his own heritage. He’s merely a human conduit who spreads someone else’s viewpoints.
Although he’d never admit it, my old friend has sacrificed the freedom to think for himself.
It’s a freedom nobody can ever take from you, but it’s one you can surrender, and it seems most adults have chosen that path. Doing your own research and exercising your own judgment requires effort. Too many adults are happy to relinquish that burden to pundits who offer to think for us.
Grown-ups don’t take their queues from others. They seek facts, verify the accuracy, employ their own reasoning, and make their own decisions.
2. They’re kind and courteous for no reason at all.
In the 1989 movie Roadhouse, Patrick Swayze plays the role of a bouncer brought in to turn around a struggling bar frequented by vicious drunks. There’s a scene where he meets his staff and instructs them on dealing with violent customers.
“If somebody gets in your face… be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he doesn’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you will both be nice.”
Be nice, for no reason at all, even when it’s hard to do so. That’s a virtue that confounds many adult children.
A grown-up never uses kindness as a manipulation tool. They never dole out niceties just because you’ve met certain conditions or because it furthers a downstream goal. They do it unconditionally because it’s a value they live by.
3. They weigh consequences.
In sixth grade, my friends talked me into asking a girl out, even though I had no interest in her. After a few weeks, I broke up with her, explaining that I never really liked her, among other reasons. She ran away, crying. And for several weeks, every girl in the sixth grade hated me.
The experience demonstrated that my actions not only have consequences for myself but also for others.
Consider it the baseline requirement for grown-up status. They routinely weigh the consequences of their actions. How might this decision harm me, others, or the community at large?
For too many folks, only one consequence matters.
Can I get away with it?
An adult who fails to weigh consequences and refuses to think for themselves can be manipulated into a weapon wielded by shady manipulators.
4. They let their conscience get the better of them.
Years ago, I was part of a private copywriting group. It was mostly twenty and thirty-somethings who made lots of money selling questionable products to solve just about any ailment or problem you can dream up.
Some were just plain old sociopaths. Others were childish adults who convinced themselves they were helping people, weaving feel-good stories about their positive impact on the world.
For a while, I bought into their bullshit, but I quit after letting my conscience get the better of me. I’m a better person for allowing that to happen.
When confronted with a moral challenge, the easiest thing to do is rationalize why it’s okay to violate your principles or look the other way and pretend not to see reality. A grown-up will face temptation. They may even briefly give in. But in the end, they listen to their conscience.
5. They find the uncomfortable ones.
I had just moved into a small studio apartment. Many of my friends had recently moved away, so I was going through a transition period. Leah lived on my floor and invited me out to a bar. Her husband had loads of friends, and she promised it would be a good opportunity for me to meet people.
When I showed up at the bar, her friends had already congregated in a tight circle. I grabbed a beer and joined them, nervously pretending to laugh at jokes I didn’t get, nodding at business jargon that dizzied me. Leah came over and shifted the conversation to different topics until we landed on one I could talk about. Then, she quietly disappeared.
That was her thing, finding the most uncomfortable person in the room and making them comfortable — a grown-up thing that so few adults do. I knew Leah for six months and haven’t seen her in twenty years, but I haven’t forgotten the lesson.
6. They no longer worry about sitting at the cool kids' table.
At 49 years old, I still know people in my age bracket who fret over being in the cool clique. They jockey for position, adapt their style and opinions to fit in, and allow the drama of it all to infect their happiness. At 15 years old, it’s natural. By the time you hit 30, it’s questionable. At 40, it’s comical. And by 50, it’s just sad.
In the eyes of a grown-up, there’s no such thing as a cool kids’ table. Besides, who gets to decide who’s cool and who isn’t? A grown-up may prefer to hang out with some people over others, but they don’t gauge those decisions based on popularity rankings.
Well-adjusted adults don’t merely accept lower arbitrary social rankings; it doesn’t matter to them. By not caring, they come off as far cooler than the popular one who sacrifices their true self while living in terror of losing their status.
7. They’re comfortable with ignorance.
Grown-ups understand how ignorant they are about most things. They recognize when they’re out of their league. Sure, they have opinions and beliefs, but they’re open to hearing facts that conflict with their views, and when necessary, they admit they’re wrong.
Most telling, they’re comfortable with saying the words, I don’t know.
A typical know-it-all adult will never admit their ignorance. It’s a sign of weakness to them. They pretend to have all the answers and defy incontrovertible evidence to the end.
To the grown-up, admitting ignorance is freeing and empowering. You become curious, seek out answers, and learn new things.
8. They hold their friends to the same standards as their enemies.
We often hold our enemies to impossibly high standards while friends and allies get a free pass when displaying questionable behavior. You probably think I’m referring to politics and the media, but it’s also common in everyday life.
It’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of the action, but if you take a step back and watch as an observer, you’ll see it runs rampant in your own circles too.
In short, if you’re not willing to hold your friends and allies up to a particular standard, don’t demand it of your enemies.
9. They apply the Hippocratic oath to life.
First, do no harm. It may not have been exactly what Hippocrates said, but there’s a reason this phrase became a proverb. The grown-up doesn’t react to rumor, dog whistles, or innuendo.
Before rushing to judgment, attacking, or showing up somewhere with a gun, they gather information, think things through, and when necessary, take a few deep breaths.
First, do no harm. Then, careful deliberation. For the elder adult children, that’s enough.
Nobody applies all these principles all the time. Everyone screws up. But grown-ups at least try while adult children don’t even bother. It’s not hard to join the ranks of grown-ups. Plenty of folks achieve it in their twenties, but far too many still miss the mark well into their seventies.