What does it mean to "grow up"?

Dear Alice,

How does one grow up? And how can someone perceive this in themselves? I'm terrified of being a Peter/Princess Pan.

Dear Reader,

While you seem concerned about an extended stay in Neverland, it might reassure you to know that your question conveys a level of self-reflection — a noted marker of maturity or “growing up.” Growing up, like a lot of other aspects of evolving identity, can be thought of as a spectrum. The feeling of moving from childhood into adulthood can take many forms and can even change for an individual throughout their lifespan. To that end, both physiological changes in the body and attributes acquired over time likely contribute to the feeling and experience of “growing up.” And while various cultures may define adulthood differently, in the US, many professionals (mental health professionals, educators, even lawmakers who deal with the action and culpability of an individual), tend to describe maturity as a range of behaviors and abilities that demonstrate emotion and intellectual capacity. These characteristics can include ability to learn from mistakes, take accountability for actions, and appreciate the reality of the present while also planning for the future.

To start, you may consider one of the more concrete elements of maturity as defined by Western medicine — the evolving brain. As people age, their bodies go through certain physiological changes that can be thought of as signs of growing up, one of these changes being brain development. As the frontal lobe, particularly the prefrontal cortex, continues to mature and grow, the ability to control impulses, assess risk versus reward, plan, and make decisions begins to improve as well. However, this brain development is just one component of how people “grow up”. While the brain stops growing in the early- to mid-twenties, emotional and psychological development continues throughout a person’s life. The ability to balance responsibility with fun, immediate desires with long-term needs, and other seemingly conflicting priorities is a trait that may only begin to be appreciated and fully understood with age and as independence and life experiences broaden.

Furthermore, you may be familiar with the phrase “grow up”, typically used in conversation to imply a person should be more mature in one way or another. But what exactly makes a person seem mature? One way to qualify maturity is to consider what unique qualities a "mature person" might embody. Some of these characteristics may include:

  • Humility: Being able to put yourself "in someone else's shoes" and understand their perspective on certain topics or issues is often times associated with maturity.
  • Gratitude: Being able to appreciate the little and grand “gifts” of life, whether they are material or not.
  • Emotional control: Having the ability to not be overwhelmed by certain feelings, like anger, and allow those feelings to control you.
  • Self-confidence: Being optimistic about one's ability to perform and overcome obstacles while, at the same time, not being egotistical and self-absorbed.
  • Self-acceptance: Having an appreciation for their own flaws and strengths, while also having the ability to change and grow.
  • Responsibility: Being accountable and actively engaged in the work necessary to support and sustain themselves, as well as their community and surrounding environment.
  • Authenticity: Living in accordance with a certain set sincere beliefs and values that have been gained through lived experience, while also presenting themselves honestly and with genuine intentions.
  • Consideration: Having an understanding of each person’s impact on the larger community, while performing actions that reflect thoughtfulness of that understanding.

If your fear of being a Princess/Peter Pan is rooted in worrying about never “growing up”, try not to be too hard on yourself. Having an appreciation of the joys and simple pleasures in life — things we readily delighted in as children, but sometimes take for granted as adults — is viewed by many as equally as important as managing responsibility and obligations of adulthood.

All in all, perhaps the key to “growing up” and developing maturity is finding a definition that is based on characteristics you admire. And no matter your age, hopefully you strive for a balance of living and self-reflection that allows for enjoyment and appreciation of life’s many experiences, whether they be in the past, present, or future.

To growing up!

Last updated Apr 22, 2022
Originally published Jul 11, 2014

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