Modern times are awash with as many references to peoples’ ‘inner child’ as there are cats and lunches on social media. The erroneous idealization of the ‘inner child’ comes from the tendency to view childhood with a rose-tinted lens, a bouquet of clichés about freedom and play.
The common usage is twee – ice-cream, usurping the swings from actual children or splashing in puddles, (ignoring all common-sense about say, leptospirosis). The term actually refers to processes in psychological therapy that aim to address unresolved childhood issues or trauma.
Development psychologist, Erik Erikson presented a lifetime of psychosocial development as a series of conflict resolutions (or failures to do so) from birth to death. He placed a high emphasis (5 out of 8 total stages) on the duration of childhood. According to Erikson, children, ideally, should develop trust in society, confidence in autonomy, the ability to express and follow their own initiative, acquire patience for and pride in industry and as teenagers, explore and then establish a unique identity.
If you (crouch to) look at it squarely in the face, childhood then seems incredibly full and frenetic with agendas that must be adequately fulfilled so you don’t grow up to be an axe-murderer or a misogynist rapper.
I’ve always had an inner grown-up.
I can count on my fingers the times I remember feeling like a child. Being carried into a bakery, sick with measles. Falling asleep in the back seat as my parents drove us home. Actually, that’s all I got. Weirdly, I last felt like a child when I read my mama a poem I wrote for someone else’s child, a few days before she died. She looked at me, smiled and clapped. I thought, “wow, I feel 11 years old.” But now my mother is dead. And I know I will never feel like a child again. That’s really not as tragic as it sounds.
Being a child is not easy. People may forget that. I never will.
You’re shorter. You have no money. Your foot’s too small to be put down. You cry when you’re overwhelmed because you haven’t learned yet to run to the office bathroom for a weep. When you shout, you sound squeaky.
Even in the most equitable families, you’re at the constant mercy of other peoples’ schedules, rules, paranoias and help us, their parenting strategies. People lose interest in what you’re saying halfway from the punchline. They send you to sports or piano lessons and tell you they’re doing things because they want ‘what’s best for you’. And what argument can you have with that?
You’re two. You need to sleep at a weird time because your tummy feels awful. But ‘schedule’. You’re four. You’re new in school. None of the kids want to play with you and the class monitor said he’s taking your eraser again. But ‘don’t be scared, you’ll make friends soon’. You’re 7. Your best friend has a new friend. And you don’t want to be the only one carrying your asthma pump to the playground. But ‘don’t be silly, it’s not a big deal. ’You’re 11. You think you may have fallen in love. You know you’re too young for this. And you don’t want boobs. And you won’t say anything because what would you say?
Dur dur d’etre bebe.
I wrote long letters of complaint to my mother because I was aware my childish emotions overcame my ability to articulate ‘what was wrong’. Not all children have this avenue. Some just set fire to Barbies or pooped their pants.
I couldn’t wait for the years to catch up with my head. I had a great childhood. But I waited every day to be an adult.
Which is why I’m going to tell you something, if you’ll forgive my being so forward. Take it at face value, ignore it if you want, but I have to say this…
Respect children. All children. The nerds, the jocks, the trouble-makers, the wallflowers. Meet their eye when they talk to you. Ask them a question that is not part of the usual ‘how’s school, who’s your favourite teacher, what’s your best friend’s name’. Maybe start with a ‘why’. If they’re two, ‘Why do you like spiderman?’ If they’re 11, “why do you think history is relevant?” You may be surprised with a great conversation.
Read their books. Know what’s going into those imaginations. Maybe course correct a little. It doesn’t always have to be ‘the right reading material’. Play this by ear. I loved Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book but every kid I’ve offered it to has refused to read it. I weaned my 7yo off Geronimo Stilton but brought a 16yo the first Twilight book. I gave my 11yo The Hunger Games while my friend M bought her Scat by Carl Hiassen. (We’ve both been promoted to ‘cool’ in the circle where these books have been lent out.)
Your child is special. But so is every other child. Some of us love all children, see the universe behind all their eyes, hear angels in all their voices and find most things they say hilarious. But when some parents act like the depth of their feelings, the twee of the baby-talk or the contents of diapers are so wondrously unique and carp on and on, it’s a bit monkeys and bananas. Everyone feels it, as intensely. If you don’t acknowledge that, you haven’t thought it through.
While you’re teaching them to strive and achieve, teach them how to lose, with grace, ethics, wisdom and dignity. They give everyone a medal at the playschool races, but life is not like that. They will probably lose more often than they win, if not at school then at sports, or at work or in love. How they treat their victors, how they pick themselves up, how they forge on maybe to win, or perhaps to lose one more time… Let this be how they measure themselves against their peers. They will never find themselves wanting, no matter what.
Much is made about unconditional parental love but not enough of the great, unflinching, unconditional love of a child. It’s tough being a kid because they just have you. Unless you do something absolutely dastardly, and sadly, even then, chances are your child will forgive you, will yearn for you to make it better.
Explain the tough stuff, but remind them of their limited responsibility. A friend’s parents getting a divorce, roadside sexual harassment, global warming, the family budget – keep them in the know. Then tell them what part they have to play. Kids pick up all the tones in the voices and the undercurrents but have no power to change anything.
Finally, I think there is too much modern emphasis on Your inner child. As a parent, your inner child may cause some sibling rivalry with your real life child. Sure, kids love spontaneity, laughing, getting wet in the rain. These are memories you’re making. But underlay that with a bedrock of security, an adult courage and honesty (and in the case of rain, a hot bath, hot chocolate and a blanket).
There will be time to posture at being their ‘friend’ when they’re in their twenties. You may actually achieve some of this in their thirties. But until then and even then, you’re the parent. Be the parent.
Don’t throw counter-tantrums, get off the damn slide and grow up. And if you’re inner child is still around, get thee to therapy pronto.