I often hear friends talk about the child within them, as though there were a single, vulnerable, cuddly little person tucked inside, in need of protection. That’s a very appealing portrait and speaks to the wish of even the toughest among us to be held—or to set free some of our less civilized impulses. The more I think of these images, though, the more I see not one but a bevy of seemingly independent children gliding and crashing through our psychological undergrowth.
Some seem solid and enduring, part of our temperament. For example, there’s the feisty child that is so prominent in some of us. There are dreamy, turbulent, and solid children, too. Think about the child who, from the age of three, seems like a little old man, whose earnest face, now in a 50-year-old, still startles us when it breaks through. When they appear, these ‘children’ seem more like whole people than separate or even separable parts of us.
Like you, I have an affectionate relationship with some of my inside “children,” but not with all of them. Let me illustrate. Throughout my life, for example, I have been filled with a childlike enthusiasm that virtually takes me over when I have a new idea, a new project, a new friend. When he takes charge, I am all action. I gather people to me. I think all the time. Dream, too. I have almost infinite energy. I know what you’re thinking: This is a manic phase. But it never gets crazy. I don’t lose or alienate people or even overextend myself all that much. I am just excited and purposeful. I am always ready to give this child, when he wants to surface, the stage.
Here’s another. I’m often rebellious, a contrarian, with hints of the two-year old or adolescent I once was. When in this state, which is often, I like to challenge conventional ideas and ways of doing things. I don’t think I’m mean when this child emerges, but I’m probably difficult for those whose positions I take on. Generally, my family and friends chuckle when they think of me in this mood. So do many of former students.
I’m less entranced with others in my inner circle of children. For instance, there’s the child who chronically fails to live up to expectations. From the time I was an infant, my mother rarely held me and, by the time I was three, she insisted I be her “little man.” Need I elaborate here? This little man marches along expecting to be put down. No matter how much I reassure him, blame my mother, applaud his successes, he marches to his own tune. No wonder. Often, I reject him. Unlike the enthusiast and the rebel, I treat him like an orphan.
And, of course, he isn’t alone. There are numbers of little guys who threaten to emerge at the most inopportune times to embarrass or inhibit or frighten me. More often than I’d like to admit, they stop me from doing what I want to do. Often, I treat them as enemies.
As with real children, we don’t just leave this little nursery school untended and free to roam as they please. They would wreak havoc if we did. Instead, we manage them. We teach the enthusiast how to “go crazy” in attractive ways. We teach the contrarian how to be a charming rebel. We even teach the orphans and enemies how to behave: when it’s alright—and with whom—to make themselves public. There are kind people, after all, who are not put off my little man’s fear of failure and who might walk him right through the darkness and into a little bit of success. We teach—or try to teach—the dependent child within us who is safe to approach, who likes to be depended on.
Here’s a slightly more extended illustration of management. Many of us are easily shamed; when we close our eyes, we can feel ourselves blushing and hiding. We feel like little children. But over the years, we learn to shield this child by building armor, becoming secretive, anticipating and avoiding dangerous situations. Paradoxically, we may become bold and brash. If we maintain enough of the initiative in social settings, if we control what is talked about and done, then we are less likely to find ourselves in embarrassing situations.
The management strategies that we select depend in good part on what is culturally acceptable. We are a culture, for example, that demands youthfulness and shuns age. In broad strokes, then, we welcome the peppy, feisty, broadly smiling old person into almost any setting. We don’t need to censor this child. But the serious, watchful, vigilant child, the one who seems old before his time and reminds us of our needy, dependent future—this child we try to hide.
It’s not just the general culture that influences the gate keeping of our children within. It is also our ability to find friends and communities who can enjoy those children, who don’t demand that we always be mature. Take my friend, Alan. He gets a huge chuckle when I rail against of any particular form of injustice: “Aha! You can attack it, build a new organization, change the world.” He loves to tease and I enjoy the teasing.
There are communities that encourage their members to be dependent because it serves group cohesion. There are communities built on the style of their rebellious leaders, even those whose adolescent bravado is barely beneath the surface. And there are communities that live off of the energy of their enthusiasts.
What the world wants most from its elders is dignity, compassion, wisdom, and even a youthful spirit—these are the prizes of aging, a far country from the most of the children we contain. For the most part, most of us have internalized these values, too. It’s what we want for ourselves.
But being children who act like…well, children, at least some of the time is unavoidable and, often enough, delightful. What, then, should we do with children, even the orphans and enemies, who still seem to demand attention and independence? I have a few thoughts.
First, observe them. Know them well. And acknowledge them. If they are still around when you are 60, 70, or 80, they aren’t going anywhere. The very act of simple, factual, nonjudgmental observation will be comforting.
Second, manage them. Look over your life and decide what your best strategies you have developed to protect and enjoy them—and emphasize those strategies.
Third embrace your whole self, those children and the adult you are, knowing that they are an integral part of your humanity.