I love children. They can bring such joy to a home and a family. At their best they can be the epitome of innocence, making those around them feel compelled to nurture and protect them. On the other hand, they also often get away with murder as people excuse them for their childish behaviours: their need for attention, their messiness, their manipulations etc. The other day I was confronted with the thought that there are still some things in me that belong in that bracket of bad behaviours. I realised (to reverse a similar saying) that while growing is inevitable, growing up isn’t. People usually say something similar to mean quite the opposite – that we have to grow up, but we don’t have to grow old. I get that, but why do we fear growing old more than we fear not growing up? Is it right to cuddle and excuse your ‘inner child’? For all the encouragement by Jesus be childlike, there is also a lot of discouragement in the Word about remaining childish for too long.
However, many people seem to mourn their journey out of childhood and innocence. They feel that they have somehow lost something, a better part of themselves – or at least a happier one. So they talk about being child-like, or ‘staying young at heart’. In some ways it’s understandable. However you slice it, the world out there does leave its scars as we are lured (or pushed!) into it. And yet, I don’t believe we should cling to our youth because – to put it bluntly – immaturity hurts. I am realizing painfully as I grow older that there are childish things in me which should have passed away and (for some reason) didn’t. There are actually three specific things (that I believe are rooted in childhood) which I would like to share and get your insights on: egocentrism, excitement and impulsivity. It is a well established fact that children are egocentric – they think they are the centre of the universe. This is not necessarily arrogance; in the beginning it is mostly ignorance. They just haven’t realised yet that they are quite insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. This leads to too many problems to mention, but I will illustrate with one example. One of the reasons that divorce is traumatic for children is that they egocentrically assume that they are to blame. I still do this today; I take credit and blame that doesn’t belong to me. When someone hoots in the traffic, I assume it’s at me. When someone is in a bad mood I assume it’s my fault. There are so many examples, but it all comes down to the same thing – we experience everything as being about us. Egocentrism is a blindness to others, and actually also to your true self. I really hope to grow up in this way, to leave childlike selfishness and egocentrism behind and embrace the maturity of self-awareness and empathy.
This brings me to the second one. We all know how excited children can get. It seems that, though they need it so much, they aren’t too motivated by routine. Rather, it is the out-of-the-ordinary which gets them out of bed; Christmas presents and birthday parties and outings. Children get bored, and so they are often kept happy by being entertained. Again, this sense of ‘youthful adventure’ is very normal and important for their development but I don’t believe it is healthy as an adult. It makes you dependent on emotions and external motivation. I’ve noticed it in myself; I go through fads and obsessions where I become very excited about something new only to see it fizzle out after it has conquered me or I have conquered it. My inner child always wanders after something new, but can’t maintain focus or commitment in a balanced, sustainable day-to-day lifestyle. To grow up I need to learn to entertain myself, to find meaning and contentment in the mundane parts of life like household chores. I need to become internally motivated by what is right and good and healthy instead of just wanting to have fun where the grass is greener. I do want to be a fun person, and I do want to be adventurous, from the inside out. But I hope I can leave stimulus behind and develop the commitment and character to live mainly from rhythm and routine instead of from novelty and obsession. I hope I can swap in excitement for joy.
The third childish behaviour that I have noticed in myself is impulsivity. Children are very distractible, and aren’t we glad when a sudden rattle of a toy can make a baby forget its crying! The thing is, cute or not, this lack of self control is very damaging later in life. Studies have shown that a simple marshmallow test can predict the future life success of children much more accurately than any IQ or similar test. Here’s how they do it – they offer a child one marshmallow as a taster, and then they offer them the choice between having another one immediately or two after half an hour. You see this at play more subtly with adults when, for instance, you observe a shopaholic at a shoe sale. It doesn’t matter if those shoes are actually needed or of good quality, they’re going for cheap! What a discount, what a chance! In other words, sales people exploit our impulsivity because they know: we battle to differentiate between mere opportunity and true value. I have realised that there are so many rattling toys that distract me from my work, my chores at home and my other commitments. There are so many shoe-sale like opportunities in my life to socialize or read or whatever where I follow an impulse with the fear that I may not get another chance, or am simply over-awed with marshmallow-lust for that thing. I really hope that I will grow in my ability to be spontaneous instead of impulsive, where I can make wise choices when confronted with opportunities and exercise self-control when there’s something more important to be done. It would save me a lot of wasted time, energy, money and mistakes.
All in all, I really find it encouraging how God can supernaturally restore these practical areas of our lives. I would appreciate to hear your stories and insights. Do you think that I have done justice in describing egocentrism, excitement and impulsivity and their link to childhood? Have you dealt with similar developmental lags in yourself with the Lord?