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Aren’t they synonyms? Aren’t both these words applied to adults who have some of the characteristics of a child?

No. And … yes.

Both words are typically applied to adults. And both words are typically applied to indicate that the adult in question has some characteristic(s) in common with a child.

But the sense of these words is quite different.

I spent two wonderful summers in my mid-teens working as a counselor at a camp for kids with special needs. Many of these kids had been paralyzed from polio. Some were confined to a wheelchair. But polio was not the only cause of issues. One week was dedicated to kids who were severely hearing impaired. One of the great joys of that particular week was a camp tradition that the cook would “chase” the senior counselor while clanking a cow bell very loudly through the mess hall. Only two of the group of 50-60 kids were totally unable to hear. (Who knows? Maybe even those two have been since able to hear a little with cochlear implants). Anyway, although the rest couldn’t hear well enough to understand spoken speech, they could hear that very loud bell. People differ in all sorts of capabilities; most often the kids at the camp — and adults as well — have some mobility, or some hearing, or some coordination. The so-called “deaf kids” squealed with delighted laughter at the antic.

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Generally speaking, the weeks that the kids came were not organized by their particular special needs but by age range. The first campers to appear were young; perhaps 5-7. The next group were 8-10. There was a huge difference in the way these two groups approached things. The younger kids had a kind of … openness. A light burned behind their eyes. They were fully there. The second group were already wary. Instead of plunging ahead to answer a question based on what they themselves thought and felt, they would look at my face, or the face of another authority figure and try to read what they were supposed to think and feel. They had, it seemed, surrendered some of their soul to schools, and rules, and requirements. They knew how to be cagey. The light behind their eyes had dimmed.

Inside every adult however, that wild well-lit child still lingers and sometimes he or she will come out to play. For some folks, that requires drugs or alcohol. Others save it for special occasions like Mardi Gras or having their team win the World (sic) Series. And some adults are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in a profession that actually rewards creativity — at least up to a point. Painters, writers, actors, therapists, scientists, dancers — often need to draw on that inner child to see afresh; to play; to dance; to interact with the world while minimizing preconceptions. That is being child-like. And, it is generally thought to be a good thing. Some adults find any hint of play annoying in other adults. Children almost universally like it — although they want the adults to be adult when a real danger is afoot.

Once, when my daughter was about four, she and I and my wife all sat on the floor listening to Leonard Bernstein’s introduction to the orchestra. We “adults” mimicked playing all of the various instruments. After a few minutes of this, my daughter looked back and forth between the two of us and said, “Oh! I get it! You two are really just little kids!” My wife and I burst out laughing. We took it as a great compliment.

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In graduate school at Michigan, one of my favorite courses was “Complex Adaptive Systems” taught by Professor John Holland. Most of the course consisted of his showing various mathematical models of complex adaptive systems. One modeling effort in particular I found interesting. It explored this question:

“If you are a complex adaptive systems (we humans are one example; so are cows, crayfish, corporations, and clans) how much of your resources should you spend on optimizing based on how much you already know and learning more about the environment (and then you can use that knowledge to optimize even more effectively later).”

Under a wide range of assumptions, it turns out that it is just about 50-50. That is, you should spend roughly half of your resources learning more about the world around you and half using what you already know to get more of what you need to survive and thrive; e.g., in the case of a person, food, water, love, etc.


How many organizations do this? How many adults do this? And, if an adult does learn, is it really open learning? In my experience, even when most adults do try to learn new skills, they are their own worst enemies. They have a highly evolved network of constraints, rules, assumptions and — yes, they do try to improve their skills — but only so long as it does not require a change in those constraints, rules, and assumptions.

To take a trivial example, people will go on to the tennis court and attempt to improve their game. But they often do it by making the same mistakes over and over. For fundamental improvement at tennis (or almost anything else), you will need to be open to fundamental change. By the way, making a fundamental change means that your performance will get slightly worse before it gets better. For instance, one of the people I sometimes play with exhibits a common error. He doesn’t bring his racquet back soon enough. He runs to hit a shot and only brings the racquet back after the ball bounces. As a result, he often rushes the shot, does not have any power, or mis-hits the ball. He’s trying to improve his skill, but he won’t improve much until he changes his approach.

For fundamental change, we need to dig deep and find that way of being in the world in which we are open to what is happening. Unfortunately, if a player does manage to “remember” to bring the racquet back father, his or her first few attempts will likely be worse than the way he or she usually hits the ball. Why? Because the timing of the shot will be quite different. The positioning and the weight transfer will also be different. A child seems to enjoy the movement itself and they seem to grasp intuitively that bringing the racquet back farther will naturally result in more powerful ground strokes. If you can be or become child-like while you learn, you will free yourself to learn at a deeper level.

To be childish is a quite different thing altogether. Someone who is childish is often not interested in learning or adapting or changing at all. They insist that they are already perfect and if they didn’t win the Monopoly game or the Chess Game or the Tic-Tac-Toe game, it’s not their fault (and therefore, there is no reason to learn to do better).

(one of my cats, Shadow, arranging the used dish towels she stole from the kitchen)

While I ran an AI lab at NYNEX, for a time, I had a pretty long commute. I listened to many “Books on Tape” during the commute including the autobiographies of many CEO’s of companies. Many of them were childish rather than child-like. Perhaps because they were rich and powerful, people told them what they wanted to hear all too often. As a result, these CEO’s often blamed their failures on factors beyond their control: the weather, government regulation, foreign competition, bad luck, fickle customers, etc. When they had successes, that was because they were smart enough to hire good people, make excellent decisions, provide superb leadership. That attitude of taking all credit for success and zero responsibility for failure is being childish — not child-like.

Incidentally, other animals can be stubborn (like a mule) and refuse to try something new — or they can be child-like and explore, play, and innovate. Play is not something that humans invented. We’ve all seen dogs play, but so do cats, otters, crows, ravens, horses, foxes, etc. In a very real sense, life itself is play. The replication and reproduction of life always allows for some variance. Life is always exploring the new and well as sticking with the old. Life itself is a balance between work (using what we already know to defend or acquire) and play (exploring new places, new ways of doing things). It is a balance between being an adult and letting that inner child continue to play. That is being child-like.

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Being childish is however quite different. That refers to a situation in which an adult (by chronological age) refuses to consider alternatives or the consider consequences; they refuse to think about the impact of their actions on others and even on themselves. Wearing a mask that has a Star Trek emblem or the likeness of a Skull or that’s colored like a rainbow — these are examples of being child-like. Refusing to wear a mask at all because someone doesn’t “feel like it”? That is being childish.

Wearing a condom that has a rocket ship on it is being child-like but not wearing one at all might be childish (unless you know you’re disease free and willing and able to raise a child). Putting on some of your favorite music and dancing while you’re doing the dishes is child-like; smashing the dishes on the floor because you’re fed up with washing them every day — that is childish. Making up a song so your students can learn math better is being child-like while being adult in taking your responsibilities seriously. Telling your students not to bother learning math — that is abdicating your responsibility to be an adult and being childish. Making up a funny protest sign and voting for the candidate whose policies you honestly think are good for the country is being an adult and being child-like. Refusing to learn about both candidates and voting for the one who makes absurd promises is being childish. Stubbornly refusing to learn the truth about your candidates failures and lies is being childish.

Life is a dance. Joining the dance and being child-like — that’s a really good thing for an adult’s health and well-being. It’s also good for society. Without any adults being child-like, there would be little or no math, science, art, music, or innovation. Of course, not all situations lend themselves to being child-like. You might have a job where the culture is so damned serious that any levity or joy will get you fired. If you have a family to feed, you might have to put on hold your desire to be child-like. If you give in to it and get fired, you’re being childish. First, get yourself a new job — hopefully one where you can be more child-like. Then, dance at the bank. If you are driving your car in bad weather, it’s not the time to “see what this baby can really do!”

Most people exhibit a mix of serious adult behavior, being child-like, and being childish. If a responsible adult “loses it” and smashes all the dishes, they will apologize; clean up the mess; buy new dishes. Rarely, we find a person who acts in a purely childish fashion. They will break the dishes and then, instead of apologizing, cleaning up the mess and buying new dishes, they will deny that they broke the dishes, blame others, and refuse to take any responsibility. Abusive parents and spouses fit into this category. But so do politicians who take a solemn oath of office to uphold the Constitution and then seek to overturn that Constitution that they swore to uphold. That is not being child-like. That is being childish.

And so is supporting such a person. To do so is to reject your own adult responsibilities.

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Purely fictional stories about a child sociopath named “Donnie Boy”

Ramming Your Head Into a Brick Wall Does Not Make You a “Hero”

Donnie Boy attends a Veteran’s Day parade

Donnie Boy lets his brother take the blame

Donnie Boy plays Sailor Man

Donnie Boy plays Soldier Man

Donnie Boy visits Granny

Donnie Boy Gets a Hamster

Donnie Boy Takes a Blue Ribbon in Spelling

Donnie Boy Gets his Name on a Tennis Trophy

Donnie Boy plays Bull-Dazzle Man

Poem: Life is a Dance

Poem: Serious Play

Essays on America: Rejecting Adulthood

The Myths of the Veritas: The First Ring of Empathy

Index to Catalog of ‘Best Practices’ in Teamwork and Collaboration

Author Page on Amazon