The term childish is defined in Merriam-Webster as “having or showing the unpleasant qualities (such as silliness or lack of maturity) that children often have.”
But a child doth protest: who most demonstrates such unpleasant qualities, your average child, or your everyday adult?
When adults consume beyond all sane limits, when they max out on their credit cards, fritter away leisure hours planted in their media centers, shirk any constructive limits on consumption, care not a whit about civic involvement (or consider civic involvement tantamount to closing traffic lanes on a busy bridge between New Jersey and New York as payback against those who do not support their political whims), they’re doing a disservice to the nth degree by typifying such behavior as childish. Rather, this is “adultishness,” and of the worst variety.
We should shun such adultishness and embrace not so much our inner child as the best aspects of our inborn childishness. Mounting if not incontrovertible evidence shows that we begin our lives with a moral and intellectual and creative bang.
Developmental specialists today are finding that very young children tend to be natural-born empathizers, scientists, reasoners, explorers. Our colossal failure to grow such innate capacities at the time they’re ripest for development makes the odds more likely that dull habits of mind, and aggressive habits of behavior, will emerge in their stead and “ripen.”
My claim is that in order for us flourish as adults, we must take our cue from those with the least number of physical years under their belts. Otherwise, with the passage of time, we’ll denature our original nature and shrink mentally, emotionally, cognitively; our sense of who we are will become fuzzier over time.
We can expand our horizons regarding our development by taking a radically different approach to the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, paying far more attention to the former. Indeed, we can only sustain and build on our development along the breathtaking lines which it began — rather than have it lapse, as it too frequently does, into apathy and bitterness, dullness and despair — by embracing our childish nature.
Easier said than done.
Never before has our culture been as child-centric as it is today, and yet, never before has childhood been as strained and pinched by the legions of Tiger and Helicopter Parents. Childhood’s serendipity and spontaneity is fast disappearing in our heavily vocationalized, over-scheduled culture. Kids are expected to be adults-in-training and to be thinking about college by the time they’re in third grade. To the extent that we’ve bought into this hyper-utilitarian notion of childhood, we not only do tremendous damage to kids, but to ourselves, severely constricting our possibilities for being all that we can be.
Sadly and erroneously, the reigning wisdom posits that childhood is merely a state of “becoming” while adulthood is one of “being.” Ideally, though, we’re in a continual state of becoming and being throughout our lives, always growing, transforming, works in progress one and all.
Childhood needs to be seen as our primary launching pad for research and development, a time of life when learning is more intense than at any other, when we gain the critical knowledge and skills that can help ensure that the human species as a whole remains adaptable. Yet children too often remain stymied at doing what they do best, and will continue to be, until we adults remove our blinders, face up to the fact that they have uncommon capacities, and as a result quit viewing them as a big bundle of deficits. Until we do, we adults stymie our own possibilities and prospects for continued growth and development.
So it is that we need to look at adulthood not so much as the end of certain incapacities and deficits, but as the beginning of a new set that differs from those of childhood. Children have distinctive qualities, virtues, skills that adults lack, just as adults have ones in abundance that children may have a dearth of. This makes it incumbent on us older folks to take the initiative and reach out to and cooperate with those who are younger.
Children and adults need to tap into each other’s singular talents and skills if each is to develop to the full. While adults are more knowledgeable and skillful others in some ways, children are, too. A child who demonstrates inordinate empathy, or exceptional self-control over impulses, or a remarkable gift in forgiveness, a child who shows a stick-to-it-iveness in fixing a broken toy that a parent has given up on mending, is a child from whom much can be learned.
Each age and stage of life we experience can contribute to the development of a harmonious yet evolving self. Each can give rise to new portals of curiosity, rationality, imaginativeness, playfulness, compassion. As the philosopher Matthew Lipman, founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, notes, this goes against the grain of predominant hierarchically-based developmental stage theories, which take pains “to select those criteria that reinforce the case they are trying to make, all the while ignoring criteria that would weaken their case.” Those, for instance, who
uphold the development thesis make sure not to select such criteria as artistic expression or philosophical insight, for to do so would make their case far less compelling. Why do children create such impressive paintings while in early childhood? Why do they ask so many metaphysical questions while still young, then seem to suffer a decline in their powers as they move into adolescence? How can children learn the terms and syntax and logic of a whole language — indeed, often, of several languages; indeed invent languages — while they are still toddlers, a feat beyond the scope of most grownups? With new approaches to stage and age theory, we’ll better nurture from the get-go our inborn artistry for achieving a well-rounded life.
The famous biblical passage — “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” — has it all wrong. Children (and youth) speak and think and reason in ways that are different from (and in many respects superior to) the way adults go about it. Children feel intimately connected to the immensity, and proceed with reasoning from that sensibility — not a childish capacity to “put away,” but to hold onto for dear life.