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There’s something magical about the way small children interact with the world. When they are still young and innocent and they haven’t experienced yet some of the cruel things life brings our way. They have this almost mystical trust, and hope, and unwavering faith that we all wish we had within ourselves. But often, instead of this childlike intrinsic goodness we aspire to, we end up acting more like the angry toddler who’s been told they can’t have a cookie before dinner. Instead of childlike we act childish. Why is this? And, perhaps more importantly, how can we fix it?
What’s The Difference Between Childlike And Childish
Childlike is defined as, “having good qualities associated with a child.” So what good qualities do we associate with a child?
In my own children I see curiosity, forgiveness, empathy, trust, an amazing capacity for growth and learning, the desire to understand the world, self-confidence, the ability to laugh at themselves, contentment, finding joy in the smallest things, affection, love, true rest, playfulness, freedom from the demands of life that adults call responsibility, the ability to truly be present in every moment, the capacity to appreciate so much that we take for granted, peace, and so much more. There’s so much that little children gain from not yet being corrupted by this evil and cruel world.
Have you ever seen the movie Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause? [spoilers ahead] In it, Jack Frost is fed up with Santa (Scott) getting all the spotlight and comes up with a plan to kick Scott out and take his place so that he (Jack) can get all the attention. His plan succeeds, but Scott figures out to undo all the damage that Jack has caused and send things back to normal. However, in the process, Scott’s ex-wife, Laura, and her new husband, Neil, get frozen by Jack and the only way to thaw them out is for Jack to thaw himself out too, and he refuses to do it. But Lucy, Laura and Neil’s daughter, knows how to save the day. See, her hugs are magical they say, and with one hug from her, Jack’s heart melts and he thaws out, thawing Laura and Neil, too.
I know it sounds pretty cheesy typed out. But to me, this is such a great representation of the childlike innocence that I’m talking about. To be childlike means to be able to see the good in everything and everyone. It means to have faith that things will work out, that you are capable, that there is still something worth fighting for.
On the other hand, childish is defined as, “of, like, or appropriate to a child; silly and immature.” In other words, its all those behaviors we affectionately call the “terrible twos.” And how does a two-year-old act, exactly? Well, considering I currently live with one, I’ll tell you! They are selfish, demanding, needy, angry when things don’t go their way, very narrowminded, insist that they are right even when you know they aren’t, come up with all sorts of excuses, and can be quite lazy. They yell, scream, hit, kick, occasionally bite, and repeat themselves over and over until you respond. They are territorial, stingy, and think everything belongs to them and them alone. They like to be in charge and are determined to have the last say.
Now, of course, this truly is only a small representation of life with a toddler, and they have so many amazing qualities as well. Besides that fact, two-year-olds have an excuse for acting childish…THEY ARE CHILDREN!!! Young children are physically incapable of managing and regulating their own mood and emotions until they are taught. They don’t have the cognitive ability yet to understand a world in which they are not the sole priority. It’s simply not within them to behave any differently than a child. The good thing is though, with time, patience, discipline, and good role models, a young child will learn how to not act like a child anymore. They will eventually grow up and understand that it’s no longer appropriate to act in a childish manner.
Adults who act childish, though, have somehow missed the memo that they are no longer children. They continue to act in childish ways, being selfish, demanding, needy, and angry. They insist on always being right and throw a fit when people disagree with them. They yell and scream and hit and kick and throw great big grown-up tantrums. The difference is that a lot of them do so believing this is the right way to behave. They think this is the only way to get what you want in life, that you must control others with oppressive actions in order to be happy. But the reality is, they’re wrong.
Why Do We Act Childish?
There are a myriad of reasons why individuals act childish. Within the community of people who come from dysfunctional families, it’s most often related to not having ever been taught how to not be childish. Our parents probably yelled and demanded and controlled and so that’s what we grew to believe was the proper way to act as an adult. As children in dysfunctional families, we often didn’t get a chance to exercise our “power” and “authority” in a safe and loving environment because our parents were busy asserting their own power and dominance in our home. For that reason, as soon as we were old enough or big enough or strong enough, we began fighting back and asserting our own power over those who were younger and weaker and smaller than us.
As a young adult, I admit that I believed that if children didn’t cry or cower in fear or leave feeling bad about themselves when you punished them, you weren’t doing it right. I believed that in order to make kids behave you had to make sure they knew who was in charge (spoiler: it wasn’t them). But my perception of the world was heavily flawed by the limited and dysfunctional patterns I had experienced myself growing up.
As adults, it is our responsibility to guide and teach and lead our children. Not by manipulation, control, and power, but through gentle correction, love, and support. It’s not our job as parents to beat our children into submission, but rather to spur them on towards greatness by modeling the behavior we want them to imitate.
So Why Does It Even Matter?
To be honest, it doesn’t matter to me personally if a random stranger halfway across the country behaves in a childish manner or not. Chances are, I’ll never cross paths with him and will never be directly affected by his behavior. But when you take a more broad view of the world and understand just how intricately we’re all connected, it begins to make more sense why our individual choices and behaviors matter so much.
I recently listened to a sermon about Abraham (Abram at the time) and his choice to trust God’s word and follow him. See, Abraham lived in a time where humanity had turned away from God, got destroyed by a flood, and now they were beginning to turn away again. It was during this time that Abraham was called by God to just up and leave his home and travel to…well, God didn’t tell him where he was going. He just told him to leave.
Now, to give you a little context, Abraham and his family had been in their home for generations. They were established there, they had authority there, they knew the land and they had a life there. So for Abraham to just leave, especially not having any clue where he was going, was a major act of faith.
And Abraham did it. He trusted God and he left his home.
You know, most families don’t become dysfunctional overnight. There are usually generations of brokenness, poor choices, and pain behind the dysfunction we see. And it would be so easy to continue down that path. I mean, yeah, maybe our life isn’t perfect, but, like Abraham, we’re comfortable here, right? We’ve been here for generations. We’re established, we have authority, we know the land and we have a life here (even if it’s a crappy one).
The thing is, no matter what choice you make right now, it will affect generations of people to come. No choice of ours is ever only ours. Everything we do impacts everyone around us.
Have you heard of the butterfly effect? It’s the idea that something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings can change the weather half-way around the world. Nothing we do is without consequence.
So, my point is, the choices we make now have the potential to positively or negatively impact hundreds of generations to come. Our choice to act childish can perpetuate the cycle of dysfunction and ensure that it gets passed down to one more generation. Or, we can choose, instead, to end the cycle of dysfunction and learn to be more childlike, filled with faith and innocence and belief that there is still good here.
We all have our moments of being totally childish, don’t we? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we want, what’s best for ourselves, or how others have hurt us that we lose our childlike faith, trust, and hope in the goodness of the world. So many of us have been hurt by those around us that it seems impossible to go back to being like that innocent child, doesn’t it? But the truth is, that little child has perhaps more wisdom than all the adults in all of the past, present, and future combined. That small child has the ability to look beyond this world, beyond people’s actions or even their intentions. They are able to look right past all of the hurt and pain and sadness in this crazy, messed-up world and grasp on to even the tiniest drop of goodness and somehow bring light and life to the world around them. And isn’t that what we all wish for ourselves and those we love? So today, let’s be intentional about putting aside our differences, our past hurts and the ways we perceive that we’ve been wronged. Instead, let’s look past all of that just this once and grasp on to the goodness in this world – however tiny of a seed it may be. After all, Christ said that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can move a mountain. Imagine what we could do if we all had that kind of faith! Break free from dysfunction by putting aside your childish ways and create a life you love.