Live Through This

Childlike Not Childish

One of them makes you a jerk, the other makes you awesome.

Illustration by Kendra

Illustration by Kendra

I remember the day my best friend in sixth grade got a fake, removable gold cap for her tooth, the better to emulate the rappers we loved at the time. I couldn’t believe her parents would buy it for her and let her wear it—it seemed so cool, so grown up. Plus, I knew she had to go into the city to get it, which added to its aura of sophisticated danger. I, meanwhile, was still watching cartoons on TV, and crocheting and knitting clothes for my dolls.

Soon I noticed that my friend was starting to hang out with different people, and that she wasn’t coming over as often after school to play kickball in my backyard. I now know that trying on new friends is just a natural part of growing up, but at the time I felt abandoned. Now that she was ready to be older, my friend was leaving me behind in Babyland. I felt like I was deficient in some way: abnormal, immature, childish.

By ninth grade most of the girls in my class had cast aside their Barbies and sticker books in favor of high heels and lots of makeup, which made me nervous. I wasn’t ready for that kind of self-sexualization—I would rather stay home and paint or watch E.T. for the hundredth time than go to a dance or hang out in the park to look at the cute boys I would see the next day in school anyway. There were a lot of things I looked forward to about being a teenager and then an adult—e.g., staying out as late as I wanted, eating ice cream any time of day or night—but I wasn’t ready to give up all the things I loved about being a kid.

And I was convinced I would have to give them up. You know how people say you should enjoy what you have now while you’re alive, because “you can’t take it with you” to the grave? That’s how I felt about the transition from childhood to adulthood: You had to leave your childish things behind. The dividing line between the two stages of life seemed solid and inflexible, and the passage through it strictly one-way—once you’d crossed it there was no turning back.

In my family, crossing that threshold meant taking on a whole list of new responsibilities. While as a kid I earned my mall money by sharing after-dinner dishwashing duties with my brother, once I became a teenager I’d have to do laundry for the entire family all by myself. I’d have to pay for more of my own stuff, too, which meant I’d have to get a job, and that wouldn’t really leave me any time for knitting or doodling or yet another E.T. screening. (Repeated viewings of that movie couldn’t have helped my fear of adulthood, now that I think back on it: The grown-ups in it are uniformly horrible, and the children get to ride around on flying bicycles.)

Here’s another thing: Growing up, I never saw any of the adults in my life having fun. They all seemed super serious all the time, and super tired—I assumed it was from working all day at jobs they didn’t seem to like very much and then coming home to houses and apartments that needed to be maintained, which would have been more than enough, but I didn’t even factor in the time they spent raising and tending to me and carting me around to all of my million after-school activities. But no matter what the reasons, the image they gave me of grown-up life was dire, stressed out, exhausted, and bleak. I was terrified of growing up and becoming like them, and losing all of the simple joys of youth; but I was also afraid being left behind and missing out on all of the pleasures and freedoms that the adult world had in store. And I got stuck there, with this impossible choice.

Then came “Todd Time.” I’ve written here before about my love of the designer Todd Oldham, who ignited in me a lifelong love of making clothes (I even studied fashion design in college, hoping to become him one day). I first saw him on the first iteration of House of Style on MTV in the early ’90s. He had his own segment (the aforementioned “Todd Time”) in which he would teach viewers how to dye our hair cherry red with Kool-Aid, for instance, or how to score at a thrift store. On the episode I happened upon, he was reupholstering a chair from the flea market using some cheery fabric, a glue gun, and some safety pins. This blew my mind. I loved the flea market! I loved making new stuff out of old stuff! And this guy—this Grown Man—was doing this for a living? It was so cool to see an adult with a job they didn’t hate—a job that in fact involved doing the very things that I loved—and he was obviously having fun while he did it. Believe it or not, this was the first hint I got that adulthood didn’t mark the end of fun forever.

After that revelation, I started paying closer attention to the adults around me, and I noticed that they didn’t all look like the responsibilities of life and work had put them through the ringer. Some of them, like my eighth grade art teacher (who was basically Joni Mitchell), had jobs that they seemed to enjoy. It began to dawn on me that there was more than one way to be an adult, and that not all of them involved giving up your childhood hobbies. It turned out that there wasn’t actually a hard line between childhood and adulthood; you can hold on to the parts of being a child that nourish and comfort you, that make you feel like yourself and help you become the person you want to be.

Suddenly adulthood didn’t seem so scary anymore. I got a job, bought a car, went away to college, dropped out, dropped back in, and eventually became an Official Old, with a job and a spouse and a house and everything. But I never stopped doing the things I liked, and many of those “childish” hobbies turned into skills that have been invaluable in my adult life. I still do all that crafty stuff, and all that time spent noodling around by myself while the other kids were sweating it out at school dances taught me how to be happy being alone, which so many people don’t know how to do and which has been incredibly useful to me. I now see all of my grade-school interests and proclivities, which were so often dismissed as “childish” by my classmates, as my way of staying connected to the part of me that can still feel wonder, and that’s willing to be entertained by simple things that make me happy—thechildlike part of me.

Here’s the difference between childish and childlike: Childish behavior in anyone who isn’t an actual child is obnoxious. It’s ramming your cart into random objects at Target for no reason; it’s throwing a temper tantrum when you don’t get your way; it’s refusing to apologize when you’ve made a mistake. Being childlike, on the other hand, is immersing yourself in something just because you love doing it. It’s being open to liking things that aren’t “cool,” without pretense or explanation, because they make you happy. It’s the ability to be curious and interested without worrying what anyone else might think. It’s pretty badass, when you think about it.

So many of you send us variations of the question “How do I figure out what I’m passionate about?” Well, you should know that you’re already doing some of the greatest things! A lot of the stuff you like now could end up being a source of lifelong joy for you, and it’s important to keep things in your life just because they make you happy—not everything has to contribute to a career decision or larger life plan. High school is stressful enough as it is, you know? In fact, being childlike is especially important when you’re a teenager—a period when you’re changing constantly, and sometimes confusingly, and are meanwhile being barraged by messages about what is acceptable and what is cool and how you should act/look/be—because it will keep you connected to some truth about yourself. It allows you to ignore everyone else’s input so you can figure out what you want for yourself. And it’s easy enough to do: Just tap into what it felt like to be a little kid with a free afternoon. Five-year-olds don’t worry that it’s “juvenile” or “uncool” to play in the sprinklers in their underwear or stare out the window for a while making weird sounds with their mouths or spend an entire hour just coloring. This is why no five-year-old ever says they need help figuring out what they’re passionate about.

So what if it makes you happy to play with Legos long past the recommended ages on the box, or have sleepovers until you graduate from high school (or beyond)? Or maybe you just really love making tiny movies, or getting together with your friends to be goofy. Don’t feel like you have to give that stuff up, hunker down, and get serious about your future. You’re not just doing something you love, you’re learning how to give yourself permission to revel in life a little bit. If you make a habit of this, it can lead to your becoming the kind of person who knows what she wants, too, and who pursues it without apology or compromise—and there is truly no better kind of adult to be. ♦


  • Clara Butler April 2nd, 2013 3:17 PM

    Loved this! There is such stigma around doing activities that are outside of what is considered ‘normal’ like partying or getting drunk. Just because I would rather be knitting and watching The Mindy Project doesn’t mean I’m any less of a person or ‘normal’.

    • Abby April 2nd, 2013 4:15 PM

      I KNOW… That’s one of the things that I don’t like about college… Everyone expects me to party all the time when I would honestly much rather be watching a movie on Netflix in my dorm room by myself or with one good friend. Or coloring. I like coloring a lot :)

    • sepiawriter April 2nd, 2013 8:19 PM

      This bothers me so much! If you’re not into partying you’re branded as boring or not ‘normal’. Well, knitting and watching a movie with a friend isn’t boring to ME, so I don’t see why there’s a problem :)

    • Runaway April 4th, 2013 11:26 AM

      You’re absolutely right. Those kinds of things you mentioned have always been more fun to me than partying. The problem is that a few years ago I started to feel the need to party…And I had nobody to party with! All the people I knew had already gone through their partying phase. Now I feel so frustrated because I feel like I’ve given up a part of being young…

  • Julliettes Blog April 2nd, 2013 4:07 PM

    This was amazing! For the beginning, it made me think about how other kids seemed ‘older’ and ‘cooler’ just because they were wearing something or doing something. Though I kind of feel bad about it now in ways, I was part of that pack.

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  • GlitterKitty April 2nd, 2013 4:14 PM

    This explains everything about my life. Growing up seems really depressing and boring and there is just so much pressure being a teenager. I would much rather prance around in a tutu at ballet class on Saturdays than get wasted at a party. I worry a lot that I’m too childish and that I should really leave the fairy princess-ness behind but this article reassured me a little bit. But I do think there is a point where you need to find something you like that isn’t made by Disney.

    • Abby April 2nd, 2013 7:29 PM

      To the last sentence: NO. I DON’T WANT TO AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME. lol

  • Simone H. April 2nd, 2013 4:17 PM

    I agree soooo much !! Thank you !
    I hate it when people tell me (or other people) that I’m immature (there are no childish/childlike words in French, so I guess we just talk about maturity) just because I like doing childlike things or because I’m always like “look ! Look ! The clouds look like cotton candy in the sunset, it’s beautiful !” or doing weird sounds or faces once in a while.
    Maturity is absolutely not about partying or getting drunk.
    We should all keep a bit of… Er… Childness without being childlike (…does that make sense ?), I wish more people understood that. :)

    • Simone H. April 2nd, 2013 4:27 PM

      PS : I played legos with a 9 years old and he was in awe (“dad ! She’s a TEEN and she likes legos ! She’s awesome !” (aaah, it’s cute how being a teen is like the holy grail to kids, when in fact, it’s just… You know…)). So yeah, legos are fun AND they make you an awesome person.

  • rottedteeth April 2nd, 2013 4:37 PM

    I’ve recently had to put my child like ways behind me because apparently its time to grow up and find what I want to do in life. So my love for drawing and music has been listed as hobbies instead of career. So now I’m looking at a medical career which doesn’t bum me out that much cuz I’ve kinda wanted to do it since I was like 5 but working at a record label does seem happier and less tiring.

    I forgot where I was going with this comment I guess I just wanted to share.

    • Runaway April 4th, 2013 11:32 AM

      Then, why don’t you try the record label thing? I gave up music and drawing for languages and literature. As you said, it’s not that bad, but it doesn’t make me completely happy. Now, I live in a ‘what if…?’ state of mind aaaaaall the time.

  • thefilmrookie April 2nd, 2013 4:54 PM

    LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS! Right now there is a lot of pressure from my friends to give up some of the fun things that I enjoy that may be considered childish, such as watching the Toy Story movies, which is akin to what Danielle said in the article about here love to watch and re watch ET.

  • alisatimi April 2nd, 2013 5:02 PM

    I think there’s still a stigma on both sides – you’re either a shallow party kid or someone with more meaningful hobbies. People forget that you’re not a stereotype, you don’t have to choose to be just one or the other. I enjoy going out with my friends on some nights just as much as I like spending time watching movies in bed by myself on others.

  • HearMeRoar April 2nd, 2013 5:03 PM

    this is a great post and really explains how i feel about life right now. in high school i see all of these “grown up” people and i want to be like them but id much rather just watch comedy central and eat on my weekends than partying. Also, WAS BRITNEY ON THE NICK NEWS WITH LINDA ELLERBEE? i dont know if it was just a rerun but i think i saw her.

  • forevernymph April 2nd, 2013 5:04 PM

    Woah woah WOAH

  • Mary the freak April 2nd, 2013 5:11 PM

    SO TRUE. It is all SO TRUE. and it’s my life.

  • MabelEnchanted April 2nd, 2013 5:33 PM

    This was really nice to read. I’m desperate to not grow up. I don’t want to be an adult. I don’t want to be a teenager!! (Even though I’m 17) I just want to be me. Which means not liking the ‘coolest’ thing and doing ‘stupid’ things because they’re fun. However, most of the time I just feel judged. I wish people like you went to my college because I don’t want to change who I am. I just want to be ‘childlike’. I loved that definition. It made me smile, this whole article did. So, thank you. Oh and listen to Never Grow Up by Taylor Swift because it just makes me sad/happy/I don’t know. I’m just glad others feel the same way I do.

  • Ariella95 April 2nd, 2013 6:24 PM

    We talked about the difference between being childlike and childish at my camp counselor training, and the idea has stuck with me. As my teacher said, maturity doesn’t mean never acting like a kid, it means being able to kid act like a kid and then go back to acting like an adult.

  • Johann7 April 2nd, 2013 7:15 PM

    Awesome advice! As for how to manage to hang on to the best childlike qualities when there IS so much stigma around it (especially in the teens/early twenties when a lot of people seem to be SUPER FOCUSED on being more ‘adult’ or ‘mature’), this old Rookie article is extremely useful:

  • dana21 April 2nd, 2013 7:38 PM

    Love this article! I fully embrace my ‘childlike’ side and hopefully always will!

  • Tyknos93 April 2nd, 2013 7:45 PM

    JEEZ This article is so timely. I turn 20 this year and I’ve spent a whole year trying to prove to myself that I can be a responsible adult and trying to reclaim a bit of that carefree youth I hear is so fleeting. It’s mostly just left me very disillusioned or unhappy. I need like The Idiot’s Guide to Life or something I guess…

  • sepiawriter April 2nd, 2013 8:12 PM

    This was so great! I love the way you define it, childlike, not childish. It’s an additional stress to think about how you should be or what you should do, people tend to go to extremes. It’s great when you can just be confortable being you, not what everyone else thinks you should be.

  • Emelie April 3rd, 2013 12:00 AM

    Your post really struck a chord for me. I recently got to catch up with an old friend, and we started talking about a pack of girls we had known in 9th grade. They were the self-proclaimed cool girls, the ones who were into heavy makeup, alcohol, and boys, and spent most of 9th grade trying to pull off the 14-going-on-24-if-you’re-24-and-also-a-character-from-Sex-and-the-City life. (In contrast, my main passions at 14 were watching “Firefly” and doing my French homework.)

    Skipping ahead nine years, my old friend and I are spending our 20s doing things like studying music in Vienna and architecture in Seoul and dating nice guys and meeting up to drink low-key beer and laugh a lot. I’m still re-watching “Firefly” and doing my homework, but my world has expanded a lot. The girls from our hometown who wanted to grow up so fast seem like they’re stuck in that world they wanted to grow into at 14. (Although I would guess they’re using their own IDs now, and aren’t burdened by having to handle 4th period geography on a crippling hangover…?)

    Don’t worry about preparing for yourself at 24 when you’re still 14. If you short-change the age you’re at, you can’t grow into the person you’re going to be at some other age, when you get there.

  • sherry April 3rd, 2013 6:41 AM

    OMG! This is perfect.
    I always wonder what I should do in order to gain a better future and I always push myself to do something I don’t really like but which can help me with my future.
    But after reading this, I’ll just let myself do the things I like!!

  • Charlie Becher April 3rd, 2013 9:44 AM

    this made me so happy.

  • flocha April 3rd, 2013 3:11 PM

    Ahh this is amazing, I really want to spend a whole day colouring in now.

  • Tambourelle April 3rd, 2013 9:34 PM

    This article is like, story of my life!
    I love dolls! And I remember as I got older, my friends were throwing away their dolls, because they were too ‘babyish’. And my Dad kept pressuring me, to get rid of mine. But I kept resisting. And so to this day I have kept all my Barbies, Polly Pockets, Bratz etc.

  • Erin. April 4th, 2013 3:58 PM

    Haha, staring out the window making weird noises, that’s so me. Still. At age 22.

    I think the thing about “growing up” is that you’ve got to do it your own way. You’ve got to live your own way, or else you’ll never forgive yourself.

  • ArmyOfRabbits April 4th, 2013 9:40 PM

    I like going out to quaint pubs and bar places just to converse with my small group of friends– however, I am not an alcohol drinker. I’m so glad the places we go to serve milkshakes and cherry soda floats. I have buddies who are very accepting of me not drinking (unfortunately one thinks I’m a party pooper because of that).

  • orthopedicsaddleshoes June 20th, 2013 5:45 PM

    “(…) Just tap into what it felt like to be a little kid with a free afternoon. Five-year-olds don’t worry that it’s “juvenile” or “uncool” to play in the sprinklers in their underwear or stare out the window for a while making weird sounds with their mouths or spend an entire hour just coloring. This is why no five-year-old ever says they need help figuring out what they’re passionate about.”
    Can I glue this words on the inside of my brain?