Keys to adulthood: When did you know you were all grown up?

Let’s first agree that it’s a nebulous thing, this “adulthood” business.

The law declares people are adults at age 18, but good grief, a lot of 18-year-olds think it’s reasonable to eat Los Jilbertos burritos at 3 a.m. and to wear pajamas to class. Perhaps this is not the best standard of adulthood.

But it’s so hard to pin down and we’re often loath to do it, anyway. Adulthood — in stereotype, at least — is perceived as the death of fun, the beginning of cares, the long march to the grave. Run away to Neverland! Run! Run!

It happens anyway, though. We’re children who grow into teenagers who become adults, however long it takes.

“For today’s young people, the road to adulthood is a long one,” wrote psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties.” “They leave home at age 18 or 19, but most do not marry, become parents, and find a long-term job until their late twenties. From their late teen to their late twenties they explore the possibilities available to them in love and work, and move gradually toward making enduring choices.”

Which brings us to the high school and college students graduating this week and next. They may not feel like adults now, but surely they’ll begin to notice the little moments that guide them like a steady hand on the small of the back toward the mystifying world of adulthood.

“Adult isn’t a noun, it’s a verb,” wrote journalist Kelly Williams Brown in “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.” “It’s the act of making correctly those small decisions that fill our day. It is one that you can practice, and that can be done in concrete steps. And if you slip up and have Diet Coke for breakfast, no one busts in and snatches away your Adult card.”

So, even though a lot of people will admit to feeling like frauds, to entertaining the same basketful-of-puppies thoughts they had at 17, to faking it at adulthood, there nevertheless are those occasional adulthood moments.

In fact, regardless of how ultimately successful you are at becoming one, you know you’re at least making at stab at adulthood when you:

■ Use coupons for something on sale at the grocery store, and you know it’s on sale because you read the Wednesday ads.

■ Acknowledge that tears, the ultimate Hail Mary, might not get you out of a speeding ticket, even though you cry them anyway.

■ Do that stupid pass-the-paper-back-and-forth-across-the-desk as you dicker over the price of a car, and you do it by yourself without your dad beside you to glower at the salesman.

■ Make something in the Crock-Pot besides Velveeta dip: a roast, say, or stew.

■ Panic if your checking account dips below $500 and REALLY panic if it dips below $200.

■ Pay off a student loan.

■ Iron your pants more often than you use the ol’ “people will just think I’ve been sitting down” ploy.

■ Realize that people are not, in fact, watching and scrutinizing and discussing your every word and deed, and that they are, in fact, just as self-conscious as you.

■ Prepare and file your taxes solo (and weep slobbering tears of gratitude to Turbo Tax).

■ Take the futon out to the curb.

■ Glance furtively at everyone just standing around while you walk out of the hospital with your new baby; seriously, why are they letting you take this baby home?? You might break it!

■ Google the difference between a Roth and a traditional IRA.

■ Go to Taco Bell as the exception rather than the rule, and order one of the “expensive” items, like a Nacho Bellgrande.

■ Elevate sleep to demigod status in your life and consider erecting a shrine to its glory.

■ Think “This is too loud” at a concert.

■ Say a definitive “No” without an apology or an explanation; especially in a “No, let’s not do that, it’s dumb” situation, where previously you might have said, “Yeah, totally, let’s do that, it’s dumb.”

■ Pay more than $11.99 for a bottle of wine.

■ Hang something on your wall only if it’s in a frame.

■ Give up thinking that you can “air out” dirty clothes and they’ll magically start smelling better.

■ Either stop asking your parents for money altogether, or ask but don’t preface the request with a big sob story or lie.

■ Declare your allegiance to a boring but extremely excellent product, such as Murphy’s Wood Oil Soap, say, or Irish Spring with Aloe.

■ Entertain the thought, “Thirty’s not so old.”

■ Retire or mend clothes with holes in them, rather than think you can strategically stand or hold your arm a certain way.

■ Choose, even if it’s only a one-time deal, not to pout.

■ Attend a potluck and sincerely ask someone for a recipe.

■ Twist weird and feel a twinge in your lower back.

■ Make an active effort to stop saying like/dude/whatever so much.

■ Grudgingly admit that your choices have consequences: the hangover, the smoking habit, the broken arm, the ankle monitor…

■ Remember to buy heater filters and then change them when you get home.

■ Would rather wear glasses and be able to see than not wear them and look cute.

■ Stop declaring, “Don’t tell me what to do! I’m an adult!”

■ Watch the intern leave at the end of August while you stay put at your desk.

■ Gather a collection of spices that goes way beyond salt, pepper and Mrs. Dash to include the likes of coriander and marjoram.

■ Say “I’m visiting my parents” rather than “I’m going home.”

■ Accidentally buy one-ply toilet paper and suffer through the entire package because you don’t want to be wasteful.

■ Put on a suit and it doesn’t feel like a costume that should be accessorized with a rainbow wig and squirting boutonniere.

■ Have that dream where you didn’t attend a 400-level class all semester (or forgot you enrolled in it) and yet you show up for the final anyway.

■ Hear a parent tell their child, “Let the lady/the man go first,” and you don’t look around to see who they mean because the lady/the man is you.

■ Get pregnant on purpose.

■ Wincingly admit, “That’s really sweet,” after eating a spoonful of Cap’n Crunch.

■ Realize that $100 isn’t a whole lot of money.

■ Successfully quell the impulse to laugh after a burp or fart, and instead just say, “Excuse me.”

■ Admire a lawn.

■ Fill out your own paperwork at the doctor/dentist/hospital.

■ Employ the snap-and-point when in charge of children and it works.

■ Recognize that the people on “House Hunters” are spoiled, ridiculous babies because you know a thing or two about house hunting.

■ Acknowledge that you’ve made the transition from knowing everything to knowing nothing.

■ Own “good” things: good towels, good dishes, good linens…

■ Apply for a lower-interest bank loan to pay off a higher-interest credit card.

■ Are unable to stay awake all night.

■ Know that your hand will get stuck if you put it in the Pringles can, so you don’t.

■ Host a dinner party.

■ Get asked, “What do you do?” rather than, “What’s your major?”

■ Worry about your parents.

■ Pay on time.

■ Feel tempted by the cookie dough at the grocery store, but righteously head to the produce section, only to buy the cookie dough and eat it all raw because there’s no one to stop you.

■ Realize that the hysterically crying phone call to your parents might cause them to worry (even though you make it anyway).

■ Spill something or make a mess, look around to see if anyone saw you, slink two or three steps away from it, then turn around with a sigh and clean it up.

■ Spend more money on a quality product that will last longer rather than buy the cheapest one.

■ Offer a giddy “Thanks!” along with your ID when you get carded at a bar.


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