5 Ways to Be Childlike But Not Childish

Being an adult doesn't mean that fun and carefree moments are completely over. Learn how to be childlike but not childish.

fair ride

Here at Working to Live Differently, I write about transformation, community building, and application of scripture from a Christian perspective. I believe God is shaping us through our spiritual disciplines, our experiences, our friendships, and our willingness to act on inspiration. 

My desire is to cultivate a spirit of honesty, friendship in Christ, and boldness in words and action — just as I am pursuing these goals today. I fail often but see that each day holds the promise of renewal.

I offer resources that encourage friends to share their stories (good and not-so-good, flattering and not-so-flattering) and to consider how Biblical truth applies to our circumstances and mindsets so that we can love God and neighbor as we love ourselves. I hope that we’ll find and nurture genuine Christian friendships that comfort, encourage, and  challenge us.

You might want to have more fun, more happiness, deeper friendships, deeper connections in your life. But you’re not sure where to start. To me, being childlike but not childish can make those things happen. To this end, I often think of Jesus’s urging to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, where we can experience the joy of being with God and His children.

His statement comes from a story in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 19, verses 14 and 15, when a bunch of kids were gathering around Jesus. The disciples, annoyed, tried to get them to leave. But Jesus intervened, saying “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

I’m not certain what these children were doing (or not doing) that compelled Jesus to say that we should emulate them. But I am pretty sure He thinks most of us should think, act, and treat each other differently than we do today. In some way, we are to become less childish (that is, less self-centered, thoughtless, and whiny) and more childlike.

When I consider what Jesus may have meant by receiving the kingdom as a child and becoming childlike, I think of carefree moments. As a kid, these were the times when my friends and I gathered in the backyard, found each other while wandering around the neighborhood, or showed up at the baseball field to see who might come along and play. Today, these occasions are friendly gatherings for a hike or bike ride.

Over the past couple of years, I have learned to approach my everyday life, whether mundane tasks or big challenges, just as I might deal with a playground session or group outing. Here are ways to be positively childlike while avoiding childishness:

Be expectant without acting entitled

Childlike expectations involve waiting for great things to happen in your life and being open to surprises while being happily dependent on God’s provisions — even if you don’t know precisely when or how those things might occur or surface. Childish entitlement involves expecting comfort and wishing others would comply with your personal preferences all the time.

Plotting my course and deciding on details of an outing ahead of time feels good and safe to me. But I’ve learned not to become so bound to a particular plan that I ignore the need to adjust my mindset and physically adapt to changes or open my eyes to better possibilities. Instead, I try to be a more willing participant in a different-than-originally-planned-and-imagined challenge.

Experience joy in the moment

Children typically don’t worry about tomorrow. Instead, they focus on the moment, dealing with their current set of problems as well as being happy about and enjoying whatever is happening right now.

This state of childlike concentration can be practiced and learned. Many people may find this intensity in their work, enjoying the present even while dealing with a myriad of complex problems. I imagine an airplane pilot as loving the sense of flight along with the analysis of and reaction to changing conditions that require extreme concentration.

For me, I love the focus required in road cycling. Outside cares and concerns are pushed aside as I scan the road and consider its curves, downhills, climbs, and straightaways; the blue sky; the wheel in front of me or (occasionally) the group behind; the quilt design painted on a barn; the gravel in my path to avoid; people chatting outside a country store. My mind is free of distraction; my heart, undivided. This state allows me to experience joy, not because of the absence of concerns but because of complete dedication to the present.

Accept (and embrace) others

Most children don’t size people up and determine alliances based on social status, community standing, professional accomplishments, personal wealth, etc. unlike childish adults. Instead, kids tend to accept and embrace others using concepts like grace, welcoming and liking everyone, or merit, such as how others treat their friends and neighbors and whether they play fairly.

What I like most about getting together with friends on a bike ride is that I am not judged by the usual standards. People notice whether I show up on time, wait patiently, point out hazards, and encourage other people. But few care about superficial signs of status.

Say what’s on your mind

When you are childlike, you don’t have license to criticize, shame, or belittle others (those actions are childish). But you should be able to tell others what you are thinking or how you feel without being judged or condemned.

You and I should be able to admit (though not necessarily dwell on) anxiety, frustration, confusion, etc. to show our need for grace without bringing down everyone’s happiness. We should also be able to point out a problem, without making someone else feel threatened. Honesty, absent harmful intent, is a positive sign that we are childlike.

Let other people help you without feeling diminished

Being childlike means allowing yourself to rely on other people and letting others rely on you, without being pathologically co-dependent. In contrast, being childish is demanding that others help you no matter what or ignoring people who have crucial insights and expertise.

If you go for a hike in the wilderness, for example, you can’t pretend to know how to use a map and compass (or GPS device) if you don’t have navigational skills. Instead, you either ask for a map-reading lesson or enlist someone to lead the way with the supplies you’ve provided. No one should be upset if you draw on your friends’ capabilities. But they may become furious if they realize you are negligently letting them get lost.

Similarly, while you are on this hike, you can’t act like you aren’t tired, hungry, or thirsty if you really are. Being childlike means expressing your needs (or noticing others who have similar ones) so that you can stop for a moment to rest, eat, and drink. Being childish might mean constantly complaining about your physical discomfort, or expecting others to bring food and water for you.

Needing others doesn’t diminish your value. Gladly supporting your friends is a childlike trait as camaraderie and candor are more important than pride and pretense.

Paradoxically, becoming more childlike can lead to greater maturity. By expecting without requiring, focusing without distraction, accepting without judging, being honest without being cruel, and drawing on the strengths of your friends, you can become more joyful, contented, gentle, and relaxed. So when Jesus says we should be like children, I think he wants us to experience the delight of relying on God and enjoying the presence of friends.

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