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Giving Free Rein to the Child Within Us

The expression “getting in touch with one’s inner child” is something of a cliché that refers to a desire to engage in thinking and behavior characteristic of childhood.  It carries a positive connotation, the notion being that it is referring to a lost, but very valuable, part of ourselves that we wish to regain.  But seldom is more sophisticated or detailed thought brought to bear on the kind of thinking and conduct this expression is talking about.  Just what are the aspects of “childness” that it is getting at?  Certainly, the tendency of children to throw temper tantrums or to toss their food across a room is not what the phrase is about.  Rather, it is talking about the more positive aspects of being a child. 

Our society has generally viewed children through two different lenses, with one or the other dominating at a particular moment based on circumstances.  One lens sees children as little barbarians who must be tamed and civilized so that they can be socialized into and navigate the adult world.  In this view, any aspect of a child’s behavior that is disorderly or irritating to adults needs to be firmly stamped out.  In contrast, the other lens sees children as little darlings who exhibit qualities that we consider endearing.  When thinking about giving free rein to the child within us, it is the latter lens that predominates.

My pondering of this question has led me to conclude that children are much more than tiny savages.  There is a lot we can learn from these artless ingenues, certainly more than we might care to admit.  

First, let us talk about what children have to say about the topics that are appropriate for conversation.  Children are undeniably more than willing to talk about matters that adults might consider embarrassing or inappropriate.  Thus, for example, young children will not hesitate to talk about the subject of excretion.  Their willingness to describe their poop in great detail elicits laughter from listeners, as well as some embarrassment from their parents.  But their parents will quickly intervene with the child to try to prevent such a faux pas from occurring again.  I am not suggesting that adults should start talking about their excrement in non-medical settings, but there is something to be said for children’s openness on the topic.  And this willingness to talk about such a taboo topic also evinces itself in discussions of genitalia and other matters that we would consider too personal and intimate for polite conversation.  

Indeed, children will also not hesitate to relate stories on all manner of subjects that we would consider very personal and inappropriate for public consumption.  Of course, it is not the case that children make an informed decision to define proper social discourse by talking about these subjects.  They do it because they have not yet learned and internalized the rules of adult conversation and the concept of stigma.  And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Why shouldn’t children ignore such rules?  While discussion of scatological matters should certainly not take place during a meal, why should it not take place at other times and places?  When children do utter something about these topics, it is an invitation to us to consider whether prohibiting discussion of them really makes sense, and it is an opportunity for us to think about whether such subjects should be off the conversational table.  When we hear a child blurt out something embarrassing or inappropriate, we should be questioning whether the operative social rule that regards it as such makes sense.  And if it does not make sense, we should be prepared to break that rule ourselves.  If enough people join in, the rule will eventually crumble, and our communication with each other will be enriched.  

The fact is that our society stigmatizes way more subjects than it should.  While the litany of forbidden topics has declined markedly over time, there are still plenty that should not be the subject of opprobrium and should instead be welcomed into conventional conversation.  For example, why should we not discuss schizophrenia or cancer in just the same way as we speak about a broken arm?  Or genitalia, just as we do the weather.

Clearly, children’s tendency to speak openly about topics they are not supposed to stems from their lack of a developed notion of stigma.  Of course, topics that would invite legal or other serious problems if spoken of openly need to remain under wraps.  But it is undeniable that our culture irrationally places too many matters outside the scope of normal conversation.  The fact is that small children do not think nearly as much as we do about what others think about them.  They have only a rudimentary notion of shame and do not attach any opprobrium to many matters that adults do.  And there is a lesson to be learned in that.

Children are also masters when it comes to love, which they dole out widely and unconditionally.  Much to their credit, they do not regard love as being a “commodity” that we give in exchange for something else, such as wealth or social status.  How many times have you seen a small child embrace someone without any thought of what they may get out of a connection with that person?  While recognizing that there do need to be some limits on such behavior by children to avoid threats to them, I can think of few things as beautiful as such unmitigated and unconditional affection.  And, so powerful is their love that if the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit is right, it has the power to turn a toy rabbit into a real one.

And there are other aspects of a child’s thinking that are just as beautiful.  Children do not know racism.  They are innocent of the prejudice adults feel towards other races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities.  And in so doing, children, without any intent, highlight for us the irrationality of such “isms.”  Sadly, racism and other forms of bigotry are something they learn over time from the adults in their lives and the larger society.  

Aside from telling a little fib now and then to get a cookie or to avoid getting into trouble, small children are largely without guile.  Perhaps that is because their intellects are not developed enough to work out manipulative schemes with the requisite degree of sophistication.  But does the reason really matter?  The truth is that young children do not engage in subterfuge; what you see is what you get.  

But while children may be without guile, they are chock full of innocence and imagination.  Who among us hasn’t delighted in watching a child put on a puppet show with their toys or talk about their imaginary friend.  These activities are the great works of artistic creativity of the future in embryonic form.  (A recent article in The Atlantic reported that one out of four adults has stuffed animals of their own in their home, suggesting that a fair number of adults wish to retain a connection with the innocence and imagination of which I speak.)

Anyone who has been around children for any length of time will also be struck by their inquisitiveness.  Children will incessantly ask “why this” and “why that.”  Children are incredibly curious about the world, and while it may challenge a parent’s patience at times, this quality is to be encouraged.  Indeed, this quality is very much part of the innocence we ascribe to children, and it goes a long way to explaining why parents and children alike adore the ingenuous and wide-eyed Sesame Street muppet, Elmo.  We adults should take a lesson from them and approach the world with the same degree of insatiable curiosity.  Allowing our wonder to roam as free as that of a child offers us an exciting buzz of cerebral stimulation and fuels learning and invention that propels civilization forward.

Children are also masters of silliness.  As with stigma, children do not carry the same degree of inhibition as adults and are more than happy to give free rein to their exuberance.  This approach to life makes living more fun, both for the adult who watches a child displaying their whimsy and for the grownup who chooses to give flight to their own playfulness.  

In many ways, a world that more fully embraces the elements of children’s minds described above would be far happier, fun, and productive than the world we have constructed.  It is time that we realize that we should do a little less stifling of children’s instincts and do a little more learning about what children have to teach us.  Such an orientation becomes a two-way street.  Our children learn from us how to understand the world and navigate life, while we, if we care to watch and listen to our children, learn from them the many lessons about living and love mentioned above. 

[If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy taking a look at my post titled Being Real as Seen Through the Lens of Children’s Stories.]