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We Don’t Have to Grow up to Become Grown-Ups

Why listening to our child voice is the key to becoming an authentic adult.

Key points

  • When adults are told to “grow up," it often implies that in order to be a mature adult, we must let go of our childlike passions and enthusiasm.
  • It may be “safer” to get rid of those childlike passions to embrace a more buttoned-up lifestyle. But safer is not always more mature.
  • There are steps we can take to embrace our child voice and live an enthusiastic, passionate and mature life.

“When are you going to grow up?”

This question is typically asked of someone who is an adult, but is behaving in a way that is deemed by another person as being less than “grown-up.” And quite frankly, it’s often less of a question and more of an uncomplimentary statement saying, “You’re acting like a child.”

There are all sorts of behaviors that evoke this question/statement. Perhaps someone is partying like a college student far after they’ve graduated. Maybe they harbor dreams of becoming rock stars, actors, or professional athletes long after the world has dismissed their chances of achieving those goals. Sometimes it’s an individual who has remained single rather than settled down into a life of marriage and children. And at other times, it’s just a person who feels emotionally sensitive and reactive to the world around them and just needs to “toughen up.”

Source: Mi Pham/Unsplash
Source: Mi Pham/Unsplash

Regardless of the specific reason why a person is accused of not growing up, there seems to be an implicit underlying assumption—in order to be a mature adult, we need to let go of and even suppress our childlike passions and enthusiasms. It is assumed that these passions will certainly undermine our assumed traditional “adult” goals of marriage, family, steady job, home, and both earning and saving money. And to be fair, intense childlike emotion in the form of passions, aspirations, and conflicts can be messy, and it often requires work to fit them into a mature adult life.

It’s certainly “safer” to get rid of those more childlike passions and embrace a more moderate, even-keeled lifestyle. But safer is not always more mature. Maturity is about understanding the world around us and developing approaches to living in that world that optimize our desired outcomes.

But for many of us, connecting with different parts of ourselves is a desired outcome. Now we must recognize that there are times when we need or want to do certain things in the world that require us to temporarily keep some of these emotions and passions at bay. But completely ignoring one aspect of our lives in an effort to develop another is neither mature nor authentic.

True maturity is recognizing that no matter how old we get, we are still human beings who have passions, conflicts, and sensitivities that stay with us throughout our lives. And how we were as children needs to inform who we are as adults. That is who we are in our most raw and unbridled form. It is where we develop our connection to the fire that drives us to succeed, the passion that drives us to connect with others, and the capacity for empathy and kindness. We feel deeply, and we act from depth. And why on Earth would we want to get rid of that?

In fact, I would argue that it is precisely embracing our childlike instincts that makes us more mature and higher functioning as adults. As an example, it is the suppression and avoidance of our more basic childlike instincts that can cause a great deal of our emotional difficulties. The more we suppress unwanted emotions, the more intense and unwieldy they get.

Further, when we lose connection with our more raw and basic emotions, we lose a connection to an authentic piece of who we are in terms of how we enjoy our life. Simply put, grown-ups need to play too. The creativity and excitement about life that animates children is something that can also be associated with improved mental health and functioning as adults.

I have been thinking a great deal about this issue since talking with Adam Weiner of the band Low Cut Connie for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast about their new album, Tough Cookies: The Best of the Quarantine Broadcasts. During our conversation, Adam was talking about listening to his “child voice” throughout his life. He explained that as a teacher, he observed that young children ages 10-11 had a more “pure” youthful exuberance about their hopes and dreams. But as they became teenagers, they started to develop a self-consciousness that inhibited them from their various passions and aspirations.

So how do we become “grown-up” without “growing up”?

First and foremost, we must reject the fundamental hypothesis that the definition of being a mature adult is to get rid of our unfiltered passion for and enjoyment of life. This is an abject fallacy that risks suppressing our more innocent and childlike emotions, thus causing more problems than it solves. We must not judge ourselves for not conforming to traditional norms or harboring aspirations that do not fit into conventional standards.

Second, we need to be honest with ourselves about what our “child voice” is saying, and we need to listen to it. We can think of our “child voice” as a member of a board who has a seat at the table. So, while the child voice doesn’t make unilateral decisions, their vote does count.

Next, we need to make our childlike side a sustainable part of our lives. Once we identify what the desires of the child voice are, we can examine how that fits in with our other objectives in life. While we don’t want to suppress our childlike voice, we also don’t want to embrace it in a way that undermines our other goals. Being a rock star may be our dream, but if we aren’t able to support ourselves financially through music, we may want to consider pursuing music as a side gig and seeing where it takes us. Or we may decide that we can best express ourselves and our enthusiasm for music by being an avid fan or aficionado. We are in the child voice business for the long haul—and we need to make a sustainable place for it in our lives.

Finally, we need to be able to communicate our childlike needs—both to ourselves and to others. Part of the joy of being a kid is the unbridled embrace of who we are and what we want—often without a filter. As an adult, we may have to be careful with how unbridled we get, but we definitely want to be able to understand, articulate, and express our childlike feelings to others. We must try to build a community that supports rather than tears down our aspirations and passions. And similarly, it is important to surround ourselves with people who do not dismiss deep emotions as evidence of immaturity, but rather show empathy and a desire to help us when we are struggling.

So, by embracing that child voice and protecting its place in our lives, we can have the best of both worlds. We can have the enthusiasm, passion, and aspirations of a kid while still meeting our responsibilities as an adult.

And then we can truly be grown-ups without growing up.


You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Adam Weiner on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at or on your favorite podcast app.

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