Dichotomy: Childlike vs. Childish

As an English teacher, I strongly advocate subtlety and nuance in language.  Dichotomies often help me to draw out concepts.

I have heard many adults–teachers included–say things such as, “Sometimes we need to let kids be kids.”  Most people understand the rough idea of that statement, tautological though it may be.

The same adults, however, often bemoan the immaturity and obnoxious behavior of the very children they wanted to indulge.

“Letting kids be kids” or “letting them get their energy out at recess” or “letting them let off steam in the cafeteria” is only a good idea when we–and young people have a clear framework of what is acceptable.

If we genuinely expect students to learn self-management–one of the CASEL standards for many schools’ social and emotional learning curricula–screaming and running might best be restricted to select, specific contexts.  Horseplay and shoving, swearing, gratuitous throwing and banging of objects should not take place at all.  Often these things take place without correction at all, or they are countenanced as steam from the release valve.

Then, the grown-ups are shocked–shocked!–when these behaviors take place in hallways and classrooms.

I propose instead a more appropriate wording for allowing kids to enjoy their young years: Children–and grownups, for that matter–should be childlike, not childish.

This ethos–coordinated and uniformly applied by adults–makes a difference.  I have seen it.  My proof?  I worked lunch and recess for four years and enjoyed it.

More details another time.

But the classroom can benefit from this understanding, too.  The childlike/childish dichotomy applies to mindset as well.  

Every September I tell students, “Sometimes adults set a bad example with bathroom humor, sexual innuendo, and foul language.  Let’s not be afraid to be innocent in this classroom and in this school.”

“At some point this year,” I go on, “a syllable we sound out in a long word will sound like something off-color.  A word taken out of context will have some juvenile and inappropriate double meaning.”

“You will be tempted to smear the innocence of our environment with snickers,” I continue.  “But little will you know that you are being tested.”

Every year, my prediction comes true.  And I do not wallow in disappointment at the one student whose maturity falls short.

Instead, I merely say, “Congratulations to all who just passed the test.”

And I look with pride as the majority of the students in the room look disapprovingly at the one who failed.

I make no effort to isolate or single out the student who merely did what my immature, 14-year-old self would have done.  I do, however, note well that perhaps 20 other young people have upheld a principle that many cynical adults consider them deaf to.

This happens every year.  Sometimes multiple times.  And sometimes everyone in the room passes the test.

Students have a remarkable capacity and willingness to rise to expectations–if only we set them, reinforce them, and demonstrate their relevance.

This kind of work, of course, requires significant effort and energy.

Perhaps half as much work as reactive, desperate, ineffective scolding that consumes our very credibility.

Photo credit: Q. Hung Pham of Pexels

I am participating in the Two Writing Teachers March 2023 Slice of Life Challenge.

5 thoughts on “Dichotomy: Childlike vs. Childish

  1. Children–and grownups, for that matter–should be childlike, not childish.

    There it is, bam! And grownups! Another great blog post Paul!

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