This is the Difference Between Growing Old and Growing Up

childhood

Photo Credit: evgeny atamanenko (Bigstock)

We’re scrambling out the door for school.

It’s the first day back after the winter break and my third-grade son Quinn is lamenting what awaits him. “Ms. Palmer says we’re going to have to write everything in cursive this semester. I don’t want to do that!”

I look at him and say, “Well, buddy, you love art, and writing in cursive is like turning your handwriting into art. So just try to make your writing beautiful.” He looks at me as if I’m crazy and says, “Your handwriting isn’t beautiful.”

Which is when my seventh-grade son Aidan breezes through the room and nonchalantly offers this on his way past: “That’s because he’s an adult, Quinn; he traded beauty for functionality a long time ago.”

Ouch.

For most of the world, the age of majority—the age at which adulthood legal begins and childhood legally ends—is eighteen. But oftentimes childhood ends way earlier than that. Because the dividing line between childhood and adulthood isn’t a legal distinction.

The dividing line between childhood and adulthood is an unfortunate trade.

Aidan’s comment hurt not because it was hurtful but because it was truthful. Somewhere along the way, I traded beauty for functionality. I traded presence for planning, wonder for work, and playfulness for productiveness. It was a slow trade, over the course of a several years. But by the time I was in the fifth grade, lying awake at night, itching the anxious hives on my legs, reviewing the errors of my day and planning for the perfection of tomorrow, I was already as adult as adult can be.

At some point, most of us make the trade.

The exchange can take many forms: mystery for certainty, tenderness for protection, vulnerability for violence, bravery for safety, love for infatuation, compassion for competition, joy for jest. Its guises are infinite, but the effect is always the same:

We think we’re growing up, but really, we’re only growing old.

Several months after Aidan’s observation, I’m standing in the post office. The intervening months have been filled with intense functionality, as I focused on the successful launching of my first book. Now, I’m mailing off a copy of Loveable to someone, and I’m rushing because I’ve sandwiched three important phone calls into the next two hours.

And the post office isn’t functioning the way I want it to.

There is only one man ahead of me in line. But there is only one employee, as well. And she is more concerned about the man’s story than she is about certifying his mail. He starts talking about his dogs. She asks lots of questions. He gives lots of answers. She’s getting distracted by his stories. He sees no problem with this. Me, though? I’m seeing red.

But I don’t want to see red.

In grade school we had a rule: no touch-backs and no trade-backs. Well, I want a trade-back. I want to trade functionality back in for beauty. I mean, for crying out loud, right here in the middle of a post office, one human being is showing genuine interest in another human being, and the other human being is feeling so loved and cared for that he’s unfurling his story for her. It’s completely dysfunctional, in the best sense of the word. It’s utterly beautiful. And I want to slow down and embrace it. So, I wonder to myself, how did I wait in line when I was a kid?

Then, instead of seeing red, I see yellow.

I’m not sure where the memory comes from, but suddenly it is there. I’m standing in line at the local Dairy Queen—just a small hut with two windows for ordering. I’m no older than six. The lights overhead are yellow to keep the bugs away, but the bugs congregate anyway. Their buzzing mingles with the buzzing of the bulbs. While we wait, I put my hand around one of the metal support poles. It’s slimy but it doesn’t occur to me to worry about germs. Instead, I begin to spin slowly around it.

I smell the sweet promise of ice cream wafting from the hut.

I feel the warm humid air of a summer that stretches out forever.

I see sticky stains on the ground and I try to step on them.

And I spin. I spin in circles, going nowhere fast, returning to where I began, over and over again. I spin. I spin inside the mystery. I spin inside the wonder. I spin inside the beauty of an utterly ordinary evening. I spin…

I see yellow, as the postal worker waves me up. We trade smiles.

Because I know the trade I really want to make. My kids have been showing me the truth of it for thirteen years now: true adulthood is not about being more grown up. True adulthood is about growing young again.

True adulthood is the best kind of trade-back.

True adulthood is a second childhood.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Find out more about how to embrace your second childhood. Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Mike Gates

    Happy Wednesday, Kelly.

    I’m up at 4 am consumed with functionality. I’m convinced work need to be done. It does, but I’ve been increasingly convinced that what I’m doing currently has to change. “I want to trade functionality back in for beauty. ” Um, It sounds good…but man, am I scared. There is much money to be made being functional. There are people depending on me to be functional…or so I tell myself.

    So , while it sounds good to say “I want to trade”, I still have too much conditioning that tells me to make money and support the family. Not ready to walk away from that. Yet.

    As you know, I hit 50 this year. The biggest change for me is realizing I’m tired of work. I’ve had a job of some sort since I was 13. I joke that “I finally know what I want to be when I grow up: retired” only it isn’t a joke. I expect a change of some sort this year. The current tasks assigned aren’t satisfying. I need to find some that are.

    • Joyce Slaughter

      I love your comments on these posts Mike.

      • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

        This is a wonderful reflection, Mike!

    • Michelle

      Mike, is it possible that you could also be productive and provide for your family from a place of calm and love. You can indeed be very productive from a place of fear, but I am learning the other is also possible. Is it really an either/ or proposition? The more open I am to what is, the more the world and possibility seem to open.

    • Mike, it seems to me that you are wisely balancing some of your foundational commitments to your family with a growing awareness of your longing for something more (or less, perhaps). If there is anyone who can find a way to balance the yearnings of the little one within them with the realities of their adult self, it is you. As others have said, thank you for this reflection, your thoughts are always so valuable to the conversation.

  • What “spinning” memories you brought back, ice cream stands and sticky spots!

  • Tiphaine

    I am trying to conjugate functionality and beauty… some days it works, some day it just does not and I find those day,s when they are “off”, difficult to accept. I am trying to go with the flow, because I am a plan A, B, C, D kind of person… And I did the exact same thing as you did the other day, at the post office… and letting go was the touch of beauty I managed. We ended up 2 of us leaving with a smile and the post lady was also smiling….

    • Tiphaine, it sounds like you and I are on the same wavelength here! Grace to you as you continue to grow in this. It’s a journey and, on any journey, some days we don’t get as far as we’d like. 😊

  • A. Julie

    I’m so glad you found that recollection from your youth; thank you for sharing it!

    • You’re welcome, Julie, thank you for reading it!

      • A. Julie

        I find myself wanting to share more specifics in response:

        I like that your son has the courage to speak his mind. I like that you listen to him. I wonder if you sometimes think twice when writing by hand, now.

        I like that you were able to slow down enough (would that we would always be so fortunate to catch ourselves) to think back, to step out of your expectations and into what was happening, and embrace it instead of fighting it. (Would that we would always be so fortunate to change gears).

        And I like the way this parallels to my own little goal of seeking joy instead of seeking productivity. I’m not sure my wording is exact but it gets me going in the right direction, listening to my heart and inner needs instead of some imaginary external taskmaster.

        In summary, I like that your post leaves me feeling like I have some thoughtful company in the aforementioned, and I like that your sharing gives me the opportunity to be happy and celebrate this little triumph of beauty over (internal and external) speed with you.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    There are so many functional things we do—that we HAVE to do—in the course of our day to get the job done adequately. There are quantifiable, testable, pass-and-failable items we need to check off a list to keep a job, earn a paycheck, meet our family’s needs.
    Almost all of the really big stuff in my day, though, comes down to the little stuff. Those conversations that open doors and then open worlds to new ways of thinking, doing, and being. Those connections that link people and then link lives because we can feel alone but it just isn’t true.
    Thank goodness the world isn’t as efficient as we wish it in our biggest rushes: there is a lot of good living in the pauses.

    • This is such a great reflection, Shel. You’re right, efficiency is important and helps us to care for the many people and things for which we are responsible. But beauty can be woven throughout. It’s not simply a trade. It’s both-and. Here’s to the “good living in the pauses.” 😊

  • Joyce Slaughter

    Reading your post, I am reminded of anticipation. Of the allowance of the building of the joy of having the thing. That’s what we had as kids.

    I am also reminded of being in lines with my own kids these days. And I have to wonder if we haven’t deprived them of that anticipation. They stand there, tech in hand, tapping their feet. Mimicing us. Impatient.

    It reminded me that I myself need to get back to the spinning. Thank you

    • Yes, Joyce, I love that a childhood word you pulled out of this is “anticipation.” Perhaps schedule something for yourself that you will enjoy and then spin with anticipation while you wait? 😊

  • Mari

    As usual, you melted my heart and brought joy into my morning by putting things into their right perspective. Thank you! Thank you!!

    • I’m so glad this felt like a welcome reorientation, Mari, you’re welcome!

  • JC

    https://youtu.be/ciS8GLe86NE : This is a great little short Disney made that speaks to the beauty we want in our lives. I found it interesting that the guy in this film didn’t quit his job. He just found a way to enjoy life as it was meant to be enjoyed. I love the comment in this article “True adulthood is a second childhood.” I had some rough, stressful moments in childhood and would love to do another childhood with the maturity and wisdom of my current life understanding. Not so much to have it easier, but to enjoy it with more gusto.

    • Right on, JC. Great video and great insight. Perhaps that really is the gift of adulthood, the chance to do childhood again, but in the safety of life that we’ve created and with the maturity and wisdom to truly enjoy it?

  • Michelle

    What a beautiful idea..and an extreme paradigm shift for me. I’m going to engage my two teens on being a kid again. Life is whirling by, and my idol of productivity needs to be replaced with presence. Thank you for this “food for thought.” It’s a blessing.

    • I love that application of this, Michelle, joining your teens in being a kid again. I have a feeling they’ll be glad to have your company!

  • Patricia

    I thought I was the only one who suffered from anxious hives in childhood!! I found this post thought provoking this morning. My husband will retire tomorrow and we are looking forward to a playful time in our lives. For us our second childhood, hopefully, starts tomorrow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; as usual very timely topic for us.

    • Congratulations to your husband (and you), Patricia! Retirement can sometimes be an unexpectedly difficult transition, but I think that’s often because it really is a chance to reclaim childhood but we forget how to do so. May tomorrow be the beginning of your remembering!

      • Patricia

        Thanks for the response. I missed your live feed on FB this morning but enjoyed the recorded version. Always helpful to hear you expand on your thoughts. Best wishes for continued success!

  • Doreen M Vitullo-Matheny

    So the question is where is the balance? Children do grow older. Generally they don’t want to remain children as they are eluded into thinking that somehow adulthood is the goal and is a better place because after all they do whatever they want, whenever they want and don’t even have to ask permission! At least that’s what I thought when I was too young for everything it seemed. Of course now I absolutely want the trade off!! Now I know better that this thing we call functionality is simply conforming to what is acceptable in society. Doing what is expected and excelling at it is the goal of course. All of it is such an illusion when what we all really want is to be loved, to belong, to be accepted for who we truly are especially to be allowed to be our true selves…and we still need permission? How ironic.

    • Doreen, this is a really interesting observation, that we long to grow up so we can be more free to do what we want, but we wind up bound by the expectations and wishes of others anyway. Perhaps that is true growing up, to simply be who we are and fully inhabit that?

  • Eoin Brennan

    I’ve been struggling with this for a while now. This sept I go back to full time education to follow a dream. Its terrifying and ridiculous and the odds are very much stacked against me succeeding. But still every time I get scared and decide to settle for safety I begin to feel very sad, like something inside of me is dying. So I made the decision, beauty wins.

    • Every time you mention the journey you’re on, Eoin, it makes me joyful. Safety loses, beauty wins, and you’ll never have to wonder “What if?” And remember, there is a special kind of success in simply making the leap, regardless of how it turns out.

  • Yackyack

    Thanks Dr. Kelly, beautiful piece. Coincidentally, listening to a talk by Kamala Masters on patience this morning, which may interest you/some of your subscribers. Not that children are the masters of patience, but one thing that you can pull from adulthood that makes your second childhood more “wise” I guess. http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/99/talk/36396/

    • I think you’re right, both children and adults can benefit from developing more patience. Thanks for sharing this resource!

  • Jane Meyers Hiatt

    This is just beautiful. I love the switch from seeing red to seeing yellow. Kelly, your writing is so honest and I love the stories as much as the insights. Thank you for the gift of you. Your posts are one of the few I unfailingly read.

  • Cris M

    Dear Kelly, just yesterday night I read this: ” to increase in years is simple matter of getting older. But to increase in wisdom is a matter of growing up. And that isn´t always as simple. … Hello to the things that teach us how to be human.” This is from Padraig O´Tuama´s book, “On the shelter…” I read several other pages but I kept thinking of that, and today you fed my thoughts with this new other piece of truth. Yes, in Padraig´s words and in your words there is this recognition that as functional adults, we have lost the capacity to enjoy the world, and most like to be functional adults, we have hidden certain portions of our wisdom someone so we can continue to be functional. Otherwise, we would have so many questions about our “functional” way of being…!!! I am now repeating Padraig´s words: “Hello to the things that teach me how to be human”(like your post and the comments of the readers). Hugs, Cris.

    • Cris, I think you and O’Tuama are getting at something here that I didn’t say in my post, that wisdom comes from being able to access and balance both our childhood and adult parts, because children often have wisdom adults don’t possess, and vice versa. Thank you for this addition!

  • Joanne Frazer

    I just said to my husband after reading this: “That is why Grandparents so enjoy engaging with their grand children. They actually have the time to enjoy chid hood again.” 🙂