Criteria for adulthood: Can anyone be more ‘grown up’ than others?

When and how does a person truly reach adulthood?

If you asked around, you would find out that people would have different answers for that point in time when they realized they have stepped out of the fences of childhood and gone over to the point of no return: adult life. Some reduce it to how their bodies have developed like becoming taller, being able to physically do certain tasks, or the ability to produce children. And then there are those that link adulthood to getting a job, earning their own keep, moving away from home, or getting married and starting their own family.

There is someone who tried to come up with a systematic way of knowing when a person has truly reached this phase in life. His name is Jeff Arnett, a psychologist who is known for coming up with the concept of Emerging Adulthood, more commonly known as “Quarterlife.” Through studies he has conducted, Arnett came up with five categories for adulthood: Biological Transitions, Family Capacities, Role Transitions, Relational Maturity, and Norm Compliance. These categories have since been validated according to age and gender by other researchers in the first decade of the 2000s.

Don’t worry, these criteria are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. ‘Biological Transitions’ comprise changes in your body like growing to your full height and being able to have sex and produce a child. ‘Family Capacities’ concern being able to run a household and take care of children (as opposed to just being able to reproduce).

‘Norm Compliance’ has more to do with following the rules of society, like choosing not to commit crimes and engaging in behaviors that fall under what society considers acceptable. ‘Role Transitions’ cover things like settling into a career and finishing education. Lastly, there is my favorite criterion—‘Relational Maturity’–that brings up more subjective and value-based views of growing up such as “being able to accept responsibility for your actions,” “having good control of your emotions,” and “developing greater consideration of others.”

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Jeff Arnett’s Five Criteria for Adulthood, validated by Nelson et. al. (2006) in their research paper ““If You Want Me to Treat You Like an Adult, Start Acting Like One!”

Honestly, although a lot of these items make sense, I do have my reservations about this list of criteria. Many items from these categories, particularly Family Capacities, Norm Compliance, and Role Transitions, emphasize jumping onto roles like getting married, having children, having no more than one sexual partner, and being able to create and protect a household. These parameters greatly limit the definition of adulthood.

The implication seems to be that if you are unmarried or if you choose not to have a family of your own (therefore being deprived of the chance to prove yourself in the area of providing for and protecting your own household) you are less of an adult than those who manage to tick these items off the list.

That would mean that thousands, possibly millions of people who want to pursue a different lifestyle might not reach full adulthood ever. This could include homosexuals in cultures where they are not allowed to get married and have children, those who are unable to find a long-term romantic partner, or even those like me who have actively chosen not to get tied down or have children because of personal reasons. In my case, I prefer the freedom to move around, nurture careers in different places, and explore the world with few limitations while also directing my own income towards my individual interests over settling down.

Does that mean that I, as well as others like me, am less of an adult than people who play more traditional roles in the world? The simple answer to that, of course, is no.


The Criteria for Adulthood highlights getting married, having children, and providing for your own household as markers of being a true grown up. But is it for everyone?

If I were to rank the criteria according to how applicable they are to everyone, meaning I would try to not exclude anyone as much as possible, I would say that ‘Relational Maturity’ is the criteria that would matter most. Relational Maturity brings the possession and enactment of human values into the fore instead of highlighting roles that not everyone might want to play. This includes having a relationship of equality with other adults, being responsible, and being less selfish and more oriented towards the well-being of other people.

Being able to think of the larger picture for the world while also caring for others, based on commitment to human values, may prove to be a more worthwhile indication of adulthood than just being able to take on traditional parts in social settings.

What do you say? Whether you agree or disagree, tell me what you think through the comments section below or emailing me at

Photo of The Simpsons via guardianlv

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