Select Page

Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational – but how much does it cost you to knock on wood? [emphasis mine] —Judith Viorst

“You’re being childish.” “Don’t be so childish.”

Many, if not most, of us have been called childish or called someone childish with little thought about the word itself. If you’ve been on the receiving end, it feels like a put down, an insult, a criticism.

I count religion but a childish toy, and hold there is no sin but ignorance. [emphasis mine] —Christopher Marlowe

Childish – puerile, weak, silly, foolish or petty

The ending -ish often has unfavorable connotations; childish therefore refers to characteristics that are undesirable and unpleasant: childish selfishness, outbursts of temper. Infantile, originally a general word, now often carries an even stronger idea of disapproval or scorn than does childish. Meaning “puerile, immature, like a child” in a bad sense is from early 15th century. Dictionary.com

The word “childish” scapegoats children as the embodiments of irresponsible, aggressive and irrational behavior.

In truth, humans of all ages behave irresponsibly and irrationally. Rather than slander and punish children with such a scornful word, we all need to be more honest and acknowledge our human foibles.

Behaviors that we label “childish” may be more obvious in children because our culture condemns those behaviors in adults and works to shut them down in children as early as possible. In many places and situations, we label playful, boisterous people as unruly, loud, and disorderly.

Children often express the “negative” emotions of anger, frustration, sadness more overtly than adults. The intensity of children’s dark emotions seems over the top and elicits embarrassment, anger, fear and even amusement from us adults.

Sometimes, I notice myself smiling when I see a small child yelling or crying in rage when another child takes her toy. My smile contains empathy, but it also contains a kernel of superiority, a belief that I am somehow better because I am above that kind of over-the-top reaction to something so small.

I don’t usually express my anger or frustration loudly or openly, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am not above intense anger over small things. Only years of effective socialization keep me from yelling and throwing things. (Of course, there are plenty of adults who feel no compunction about yelling or throwing things when they’re angry, despite social disapproval [see “childish”].)

What kinds of small things make my blood boil? Drivers who consistently drive at least 10 mph slower than the posted speed–especially when I’m in a hurry, or people in a grocery store who block the aisle with their carts. I’ve seen drivers become so angry about a slow driver that they dangerously speed around and cut in front. I’ve seen little signs in people’s yards telling passersby with barely concealed rage to keep their dogs from pooping in the yard. And we all know it’s never advisable to read the comments sections of internet sites, because apoplectic people rage unchecked there.

My point is that children are no more likely to respond irrationally than adults are. Plus, it’s insulting and patronizing to belittle someone else’s emotional reaction and call it childish. Why is it anymore unreasonable or irrational for a child to rage about someone taking her toy than for a me to fume about the slow driver who makes me arrive three minutes later? My ability to behave reasonably and patiently is just as compromised as a child’s when I’m tired or there’s too much going on.

The traits the word ‘childish’ addresses are seen so often in adults that we should abolish this age-discriminatory word when it comes to criticizing behavior associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking. —Adora Svitak *

Rather than slander children for everyone’s intense emotional reactions, it is more helpful and humane to remember that there’s a vulnerable, hurt person underneath. Striking back with a word like “childish” serves only to shame and stimulates more anger and defensiveness. We can begin to disentangle ourselves from the cultural war on children by eliminating the word “childish” from our vocabularies and encouraging other people to do the same. And, we can actively provide compassionate space and support for children–and ourselves–as we all keep learning to navigate our complex emotional landscapes.

*Adora Svitak is a person I want to connect with. If anyone knows her or has some connection to her, please let me know. If not, I can contact her via her website.