Why You Need Your Multipotentialite Inner Child
Photo courtesy of Philippe Put.

Why You Need Your Multipotentialite Inner Child

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Learning

I never really grew out of childishness.

It’s just so fun. Children get to be curious, silly, and playful, and there’s something delightfully mindful about the capacity they have to get absorbed in an activity for hours on end.

Naturally, we can’t remain entirely childish forever, but I’ve been thinking lately about which parts of childishness we might benefit from, even now we’re Definitely Responsible Adults.

Growing Out of Wonder

What strikes me when I think back to my own childhood is a powerful sense of wonder. The world seemed massive, too big to even begin to grasp. Everything seemed possible. To a child, magic and electricity and dragons and computers are all equally likely.

But unfortunately, I grew up, and that sense of wonder faded as I learned what is actually real, and what isn’t.

Once you develop an accurate model of the world, wonder necessarily fades. New facts no longer create whole new categories in your mind—they’re just details. Learning about Viking sea burials is cool… but it’s less exciting than discovering that Vikings existed in the first place.

That feeling of discovering a whole new category is still one of my favourites. That moment of “wait, that’s a thing?!” is the closest I come to that childish feeling of constant wonder.

Believing You Know Everything

Of course it’s necessary to develop a more accurate model of the world. But, as well as decreasing the sense of wonder, it brings some other traps. For example, like many teenagers and young adults, I fell into the common trap of thinking I knew everything.

With hindsight, it’s obvious why that trap is so tempting. We grow up from total helplessness and dependence to being able to—pretty much—look after ourselves. Of course that makes us feel more confident: we’re finally getting a grip on how this world works! As kids our minds were blown by a light switch, but now we’re mature teenagers, we’ve pretty much got everything sorted…right?

On top of that natural confidence in our growing abilities, there’s a huge social pressure to signal that we’ve grown out of our weak, dependent childish stage. It becomes very tempting to act like we know everything to signal confidence. (And from there, it’s easy to start to believe our own hype.)

But, luckily, I learned an important lesson: we don’t actually know everything.

More than that: and we never will.

And even more still: and that’s okay!

These turn out to be fun lessons, because they re-open us to the possibility of childish openness. There’s loads more to learn, and that’s exciting!

Childishness as an Adult

Thinking about childishness has made me more determined to keep embracing that natural childish curiosity.

It’s easy to forget that I don’t know as much as I think I do. There’s a constant temptation to be dismissive of new knowledge, to assume that what we don’t already know isn’t worth knowing.

But, to state the obvious, we don’t know what we don’t know. Dismissing everything we don’t already know freezes us into position—often positions we formed, ironically, as children.

The worst combination is a child’s understanding of the world with an adult’s unwillingness to learn… but that’s an easy combination to accidentally fall into.

Ideally, I think we should aspire to be the other way around: a child’s willingness to learn, informing an adult’s (growing) understanding.

Rediscovering these positive aspects of the childish state isn’t about the trappings of childhood – the clothes, the toys, the silliness, or the self-centeredness. It’s about embracing a childish attitude – being open, curious and, above all, believing that there’s always more to learn.

This attitude remains within us, if we want it.

Your Turn

How do you relate to childishness as an adult? What other aspects of childishness might be positive, and how do we access them?

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

22 Comments

  1. Jo says:

    Don’t forget – it’s ‘childlike’, not ‘childish’!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Jo! As you and Carol point out, childlike and childish is a very useful distinction to make. Thanks for adding to the post :)

  2. Carol Wiebe says:

    You made excellent points here, Neil. I especially like your description of the worst combination.
    I make a distinction between childish and childlike. The one is pejorative, the other a state to strive for in the ways you have described.

  3. Anastasia Morgan-Rose says:

    I am totally for the the nostaligic idea of becoming childish or “childlike”. I can look back at my childhood days of creativity, wonder and playfulness…and I’m agressively working my way to returning to that place. The honest truth is that miss that me a lot and I believe many others do too!

  4. Beth says:

    As a matter of fact, TODAY is my day for being a child. On Wednesdays I volunteer for the UNM Wemagination Early Learning Resource Center. Most of the time I sort and organize donations of all sorts of wonderful parts of things. One week we got beautiful cut pieces of wood from the Levitation Toy Factory. Another week I found an amazing seed pod that turned out to come from a Banksia tree in Australia. I never know what wonderful surprises are in for me when I walk through the door.

  5. Vlad says:

    There is nothing else like having a child and relieving your childhood through his/her eyes and re-learning how to play, have fun, be free and be curious all over again! Adults have forgot what benefits kids have ;-)

  6. Christin says:

    Oh yes,
    i can be very childish, absurd and those kind of things. I like to learn new things. Especially if it´s creative stuff. A simple butterfly on a flower..oh my i could watch it and take fotos for a lifetime. Those are the moments i love so much. But people around me think about it as a kind of weakness. People don´t take me serious.

    I´m not serious enough for many things, i can´t take things to an end an this and that. I am so silly an so on. They only see the negative aspects. And i am a very open, hearty and positive person…if i like to. But these reactions to my person…makes me depresssive on long term. Even in an Job. It seems to me i permanently have to be another person… but i am not like that.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ah, that sounds tough Christin – it’s hard when these positive characteristics lead to negative judgements from others. But that inner joy is a gift that you have!

  7. Greg says:

    “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”- Socrates

    Funny how behaviors we find cute in children (imagination, curiosity, talking to ourselves, “childish” antics) will certify you as mentally insane as an adult.

    At what age do adults, or our peers in school, start conditioning us that we can no longer behave this way? Seems that some sort of shame is instilled in us at a certain age to longer imagine new worlds in our heads or to see wonder in the smallest of things. Too bad- I always try to recapture this feeling as an adult whenever I can.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      You’re right, Greg, it is interesting how we socialise childlike behaviours out of adults. Of course, we need “adultlike” behaviours TOO… but not at the cost of losing our inner child entirely :)

  8. Maureen says:

    I love to play with play dough with my grandchildren. We create many wonderful things! Time stands still. They teach me to be fully present in the moment. For children there is no yesterday or tomorrow. There is only NOW, which is really the only place we can BE.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly, that playful presence is such a wonderful state, and we get so few opportunities to embrace it :)

  9. Zen Dexter says:

    “We should aspire to [have] a child’s willingness to learn, informing an adult’s (growing) understanding.” LOVE this line.

    I think an easy way to start embracing your inner child is simply to ask more questions. This can be out loud to others, or just to yourself. One of the best questions to ask is: Why? :)

    Lastly, a quote from Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

  10. Tom says:

    I just can’t hide my inner child. I’ve tried. I find everything fascinating, love learning new things. From sunsets to sand grains – it is all mind blowing. My wife comments on my observations, wondering how I notice them but sharing in the wonder once she sees them. I’m happy to pass the pondering along.

  11. Divya says:

    Thanks for the article – and i liked the way say “we should aspire to be the other way around: a child’s willingness to learn, informing an adult’s (growing) understanding.”

    I have this huge fascination towards learning – and I am a fast learner and implementer too- but in the last few years I have been having a lot of difficulty convincing peer adults that child-like curiosity is a good thing – esp in these dynamic times. Because what you think you know is already obsolete. Somehow “I am here to learn” is not accepted as a good sensible thing by hiring managers be in startup world or otherwise..

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Agreed – it’s always surprising to me how people value “already knowing things” over “willingness to learn”, when only one of those has any potential for growth!