Sapient Nature

Bite-sized insights on the human condition.

Grow to Be a Child

What does it take to become childlike again?

The child is the father of the man in terms of the ability to be childlike

Children, like most things in life, come with a combination of good qualities and bad ones. As parents know only too well, children can be both endearing and frustrating, often within minutes of each other. Children can be spontaneous, unselfconscious, and joyful, but they can also be self-centered, impulsive and irritable. We could refer to their endearing qualities by the term "childlike," and to their frustrating qualities by the term "childish".

As we grow into adulthood, it seems that most of us lose our childishness-we become more mature, and more in control of our emotions-, but unfortunately, we also lose much of our childlikeness as well-we are less capable of being spontaneous, unselfconscious and joyful. In other words, we lose the good with the bad.

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Is it possible to retain childlike qualities even as we mature into adulthood? Or, put differently, what would it take to retain just the good qualities associated with being a child and lose the bad ones?

What it takes is a deeper understanding of the underlying reason why children are both childlike and childish, because we will then discover that the very factors that help us overcome childishness are the ones that make us lose our childlikeness. To see how this is so, it is useful to understand what makes human beings so different from other animals.

As many psychologists have noted, humans are unique in their ability to imagine things that are not in our immediate environment. It is this ability that enables us to build models (e.g., maps or prototypes), symbols (mathematics), and theories. It is the same ability that helps a prisoner in a jail maintain sanity-by enabling him to imagine better times.

The ability to imagine is fundamental in two other ways as well. First, it helps us plan for the future-without the ability to plan, we would be prisoners of the present, and hence, wouldn't be nearly as powerful a species. Second, it helps us empathize with others; it helps us feel what others in a vastly different situation feel. For example, even if we have never lost a limb, or been imprisoned, we can imagine how it would feel to be in those circumstances.

The ability to imagine, which develops with the growth of the neocortex (the upper front part of the brain)-a process that takes several (four to five) years after birth-is the root cause for why children, when they grow up, lose both childishness and childlikeness. As the neocortex develops, humans become better at empathizing with other people's problems and situations. Thus, older children are (or should be) more capable of sharing and cooperating with others, because they can literally feel others' emotions by being able to put themselves in others' shoes.

The development of the neocortex, however, also ushers in the ability to imagine possible-and as yet unrealized-futures. This ability affects us both negatively and positively. I have already mentioned the positive aspect of imagining possible futures: it allows us to make plans, set-up goals and strive towards them. The negative side to imagining possible futures is that it makes us worry a lot more than we otherwise would. We can't enjoy a hearty meal if we know that future meals are in jeopardy. Similarly, we can't derive complete satisfaction from spending time with a romantic partner if we know that we won't be seeing them for a long time to come.

As the cartoon from the New Yorker depicts, the ability to imagine fragments us, leaving us divided in time. When we are at a party, we worry about work; when we are at work, we worry about family obligations, and when we are with family, we wish we were hanging out with friends. We, unlike children, are almost never 100% present in the moment.

The evolution of humans from childhood to adulthood can be summarized across two dimensions: the self vs. other dimension and the now vs. future/past. A child lacks both the ability to empathize and the ability to time-travel, which is why children are supremely self-centered, but spontaneous and "in the moment". Adults, on the other hand, have both abilities, which is why we are more capable of compassion, but also more fragmented in time.
What does all this mean for being childlike again? Or more precisely, what does it take to regain the sense of unselfconscious spontaneity while also being compassionate?

The answer to this question is simple, but difficult to put in practice. What it takes to be a child again is to understand the sources of fragmentation, and then overcome them. For most of us, what fragments us is our desire to maintain high self-worth-through our looks, achievements, fame, power, money, etc. As we grow older, we worry increasingly about our deteriorating looks. We yearn for our youthful looks even as we recognize that we are, at the present moment, the most youthful we will ever be for the rest of our lives. And most of us also worry about our achievements, fame, etc., and how they compare to that of others. These worries erode into our self-worth and that makes us feel sad, inadequate and depressed. These emotions, in turn, cause us to worry even more about issues related to looks, achievements, and the other "extrinsic" sources of self-worth. Being caught up in this vicious cycle is the primary cause for fragmentation.

So, crucial to being in the moment, and thus crucial to being childlike (spontaneous, unselfconscious and joyful) is to delink the tie between how much we value ourselves from these extrinsic aspects. The more we can feel good about ourselves regardless of our looks and achievements, and all the other things we desire-fame, money, power, respect, love, etc.-the more we will be free to be in the moment.

But delinking our self-worth from these extrinsic aspects of life is a tall order. After all, we have been conditioned from birth to believe that our worthiness lies in how good we look, how much we earn, and how much we have achieved. Becoming childlike thus involves unlearning these conditionings, but such unlearning cannot happen unless we have the courage to challenge virtually everyone's views on the determinants of self-worth. So, becoming childlike involves living by a different set of rules than the ones that society dictates.

This then leads to the question: what set of rules allow de-linking self-worth from extrinsic aspects?

The complete answer to this question is long and intricate, but one thing is obvious if you observe children carefully: their interest in an activity has little to do with the rewards associated with doing the activity well; rather, their interest in an activity depends almost entirely how much they enjoy the activity. You can make a child do something he doesn't enjoy by bribing him, but you can't make him enjoy that activity through the bribe. Thus, an important rule by which a childlike person lives is this: he always accords greater importance to enjoyment of an activity than to the rewards associated with doing that activity well.

In sum, becoming childlike really takes a variety of abilities: awareness of why we lose our childlikeness, courage to challenge society's views about what's worthy of pursuit, and, finally, intelligence to figure out an alternative set of rules by which to live. In short, it isn't child's play to be childlike; in fact, it takes great maturity to be childlike.

But, the good news is, it can be done.

Do you have it in you to become a child again?

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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