For a lot of us, memories of our childhood bring up feelings of nostalgia. Maybe it was a time where we truly felt free and happy; maybe we’ve spent some of our very task-driven, results-focused adult life wishing we could get back to that place. Whether this is something you’ve dwelled on, given a passing thought to or haven’t considered much at all, I think there are quite a few lessons we can learn from the kid that still lives inside each of us.
1. Willingness to hope
When we were kids, we weren’t afraid to hope – and even more than that, we weren’t afraid to share what we hoped for. We’d proudly tell people that we wanted to have the dual career of being Santa Claus and an astronaut when we grew up. As we got older, we learned to be more selective about what we revealed that we hoped for, because we learned that there exists something called rejection (and that with rejection often comes judgment from others). As if it could lessen the blow of not being accepted into the college we were most excited about, not being chosen for a job that we really wanted or being turned down upon expressing our interest in dating someone, we started to believe that hiding what we hope for is the way to protect ourselves from feeling the effects of rejection. We started to believe that we should only share that we’d hoped for something once we know we’ve gotten or achieved it. I couldn’t disagree more. Hiding what we hope for is one of the fastest routes to creating shame, because it leads to self-blaming, feelings of powerlessness and a victim mentality when we don’t get what we want. Hiding what we hope for also dulls our lives down to a dead heartbeat, making us unable to feel true excitement and attaching a “so what?” mentality to perseverance and hard work. Because when you spend more time telling yourself that the things you care about don’t matter, you put up more and more of a shield to your ability to be happy. It’s a risk to share with others what we most hope for, because there is always a chance we’ll be rejected, but there’s also something very courageous, liberating and ultimately intensely gratifying about it, no matter the outcome.
2. Sense of awe
When we were kids, we were impressed pretty damn easily. If you’ve ever seen a bunch of five-year-olds at a magic show, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There will be no fewer than two kids trying to sneak through the guy’s travel bag of tricks; revealing a rabbit in a box that was empty five seconds ago will all but produce mass hysteria; and in general, not one ass will stay planted on the floor for the entire show. As we got older, we became that adult standing in the background with arms crossed, maybe smirking, generally unmoved by what we’re seeing because we know all the secrets of the universe by this point, or at the very least the secret behind that card trick. I don’t know when it is exactly that we lose that sense of wonder, when we start to feel like we’ve seen and heard and experienced it all, but I think that might be one of the more damaging beliefs in the entire world. We need awe, badly: it makes us more generous, kind, cooperative and altruistic. It makes us feel like we’re part of a more collective whole; it makes us less entitled and less self-focused. Whether it’s going for a hike, sitting on a beach, listening to live music or something else entirely personal to you, do whatever it is that you need to do to experience awe and wonder every day, to tap back into that kid inside of you.
3. Openness to love
Last year, I was visiting an old babysitter, who now has two young kids of her own. Though I hadn’t seen them in nearly a year and almost didn’t even expect her daughter to remember me, when I walked in, she immediately ran over and flung her arms around my neck without any inhibitions. I almost tripped backwards – there was some pretty serious momentum to that hug, but that wasn’t why. Over time, I’ve become more and more closed, less and less of that child who runs over excitedly and hugs people, who shows love openly. That scared me; when is it that we learn to be so cautious about loving others? Why was it so shocking and difficult for me to receive that hug? At what point do we become so guarded, so protective, of who and what we trust? If we could tap back into the part of ourselves that gives and receives love without fear or caution, I wonder in what other ways we might become more open and freed.
4. Allowing ourselves to be comforted
This is fairly similar to openness to love, but different – and important – enough that I think it deserves to be its own category. When we were kids and we fell and scraped our leg, dropped our blankie into a dirty pond or were just plain exhausted, we allowed ourselves to be comforted by others. As we got older, we learned the art of pretending to be fine, of pretending to not care when something hurts us. We learned to internalize and bury our pain rather than talk about it and seek comfort from those who love us in an eternal effort to never be seen as “weak.” There’s a lot to be said about our ability to comfort ourselves – it’s part of growing up and fostering our independence – but there’s also something very important and very undervalued in our society about asking for help when you need it and letting others in when you’re hurting. It’s interesting just how willing we often are to talk about the times that we comfort others, but just how unwilling we are to admit that we’d like to feel comforted sometimes too. Next time you find yourself feeling hurt or upset, it’d be if anything an interesting experiment to see what it might be like to allow yourself to be comforted like you did as a kid, rather than trying to go at it all
5. A bedtime
Sort of kidding but mostly not. There’s something to be said about having some structure and stability to our lives. Also something to be said about getting eight hours of sleep.
6. Exploring our creativity
As kids, we didn’t look at the Crayola 64 pack (complete with sharpener, yes) and say, “Oh, no, thanks anyway, but I’m not creative.” We sat down and colored. As adults, however, we learned to divide ourselves and others into two camps of people: those who “are creative” and those who “are not creative.” I think this is possibly the biggest load of horseshit out there. Merriam Webster defines creativity simply as “the ability to create.” Just by being human, you possess the ability to create. And part of why creativity is such an important aspect of our lives as humans is that it’s the ultimate expression of our originality. It’s freeing, it’s fun and it gets us closer and closer to our true self, rejecting the believed need for constant comparison between ourselves and others. Through whatever form of “creating” most speaks to you, by tapping back into that creativity that you so enthusiastically explored as a kid – and by simply being you, with all of your nuances and abilities and imperfections – you’ll be bringing something to the world that no one else can offer. That’s powerful.
We didn’t learn to lie until we learned shame and consequences, because before then, we didn’t know that we’d ever need to lie. Over time, we became hardened and guarded, learning how, when and why to be dishonest. Maybe we viewed it as protecting others or protecting ourselves; maybe it was how we learned to get ourselves out of sticky situations. But a careful consideration of our tendencies when it comes to dishonesty might be the thing that helps us get back to that more pure, optimistic and liberated state that we associate with kids. What in our lives now makes us feel like we need to lie? Who do we tend to lie to? Others? Ourselves? Do our lies tend to help or do they tend to hurt? What might happen if we became more forthright with truths?
Playtime is hugely important to our happiness and yet it’s often the first thing to go for many adults. We’re so busy trudging through to-do lists in our jobs and at home that to make time for play is basically unfathomable; after all, playing doesn’t produce anything of value and we’re living in a “time is money” world. But when we don’t set aside time to do things that are nothing but fun for us like we once did as kids – when we lose our willingness to be silly – we’re missing out on a major part of our lives. (Not to mention we’re sacrificing the kind of energy and joy and excitement that we can bring to the tasks we have on those to-do lists, so if you were feeling skeptical about getting away from that pile of work you have for an hour, now you know why you downright need to go run around on an adventure.)
Before we learned that knowledge was something that would be tested, we wanted to know things purely out of curiosity. We weren’t learning for the sake of a GPA or to drop facts in some insecure attempt to impress others. We just wanted to know things – a lot of things. And maybe over time we retained that curiosity, that desire to know. Or maybe we lost some of that as we became more and more wrapped up by all the things that we were told we had to know. What would get you excited to know again? What would make you approach your world with a more child-like curiosity?
10. The occasional act of rebellion
A little (legal) rebellion can be good for us. As kids we knew this. My friends and I ran away from home; we ate tubs of icing in a closet; we used all the lemonade mix in the kitchen for lemonade stands, broke tables by dragging them out to the sidewalk and generally ended up drinking all of it ourselves and being wired till midnight – so on and so forth. Half of the time our parents were probably ready to put us on the curb with a “FREE” sign strapped around our necks, but at least we were pushing boundaries. A little rebellion is fun, it’s exhilarating and it definitely teaches us a few things, at the very least about who we are and what we’re willing to try. It makes us a little bit braver, a little more courageous. As we get older and filter into adult life though, with its obligations and expectations of us, we start to rebel less and less and conform more and more. Part of that’s probably because the part of our brain that houses our rationality complex is finally fully developed by 25 (which is to say that it’s probably a good thing), but maybe another part of it is just that we start to forget what it was like to live a little on the edge, to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. I’m not sure what the adult equivalent of running away from home would be (please don’t not show up at work after reading this), but I think you should go do that. A little bit of it. Occasionally.
11. Living in the now
When we were little, we ran around without much worry as to the future or anxiety over the past, living fully and in the now, and maybe that’s because at that point we hadn’t yet developed an ego. I think the ego is that fear-driven place inside us that tells us that we’re not good enough, that taking a risk might not pay off, that cautions us from getting hurt and tells us to avoid, to back away. So we spend years learning to be afraid, and then, maybe sometime in our early adult life, we realize that it’s job to unlearn that a little if we ever want to be happy, if we ever want to again be able to live fully in the now. Maybe it’s in living in the now that we allow ourselves to wake up every day and discover what life at our most alive really means.
As kids, we may not have been fully developed, rational, introspective human beings, but we were very much our authentic selves. After all, we hadn’t yet learned what was “cool” and “uncool.” We hadn’t yet learned that there’s such thing as social hierarchy. We hadn’t yet learned that you might have to actually work to simply belong, that belonging amongst other people just like you could possibly be an active pursuit. We hadn’t yet learned to be worried about how we’ll be perceived, that we might need to control and measure our actions against the behaviors of others to make sure that we’re safe and in line with those around us. As we get older – as we become all of these things – we tend to get further and further from who we really are. What might we be like if we tapped back into that place inside of us that lives more by what we love than what we’ve learned we should love? What might we feel towards ourselves and towards others? How might that kid inside each of us come through?