Childish or Childlike?

Childish or Childlike?


Eric Scalise, Ph.D.


jordan-whitt-89812All of us have probably observed childish behavior… not only in young children, which is almost expected, but also in some adults, which is unfortunate and often produces a “roll your eyes” response. In many ways, we come into this world helpless, needy, and self-absorbed. Children must be taught, even trained to be giving, confident, caring, and other’s-centered. Growing old is an automatic process; however, as a counselor, I have learned that growing up is optional. In his discourse on spiritual maturity and the need to grow in love (i.e., the ability to be “tuned in” to another person with a heart of compassion), the Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).

So what does childishness look like? More often than not, the word has a negative connotation and can refer to behavior that is deemed immature, irresponsible, selfish, infantile, or juvenile. Adults who display childish tendencies have difficulty with emotional regulation. They are impulsive, pouty, and can have frequent outbursts of anger. Behaviorally, they are prone to lying, blame others to avoid responsibility, are predisposed to bullying, and frequently need to be the center of attention. In extreme cases, the evidence of clinical problems surface, such as those that are seen with certain personality disorders (e.g., dependent personality, narcissistic personality, antisocial personality, histrionic personality, borderline personality disorder, etc.). Healthy adults are tempered in their day-to-day interactions with people, have a more engaging approach, and work toward understanding problems while looking for mutually beneficial solutions.

Childlikeness, on the other hand, is often paired with a positive perception of innocence, as well as a posture of trust in God and others. People who are childlike are sometimes described as playful, creative, unselfish, and teachable. In discussing greatness, Jesus asked, “‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1-4). Here, we see Jesus referring to the simple faith and trust often found in a child. No wonder children loved the Lord and flocked to Him whenever He was present. They understood Him, He was easy to approach, and they could rest in knowing they were genuinely and completely accepted and loved. In fact, the heart of the Gospel is not that complicated. Adults are the ones who tend to convolute and intertwine the message with excessive rules, expectations, intellectual structure, and overt legalism.

ben-white-197668The Apostle John learned an important lesson that day and later incorporated a similar concept in one of his Epistles. He refers to “little children” seven times in 1 John – not to imply a lack of maturity, but to define what it means to be a secure and trusting disciple of Christ. With Jesus as our role model and love as a compass, John highlights several benefits to having this childlike orientation: that we may not sin (2:1); that we may know we are forgiven (2:12); to have confidence and not shrink away in shame (2:28); to not be deceived, but to practice righteousness (3:7); to love in deed and in truth (3:18); to overcome the influence of false prophets (4:4); and to guard our hearts from idols (5:21).

Moving away from childishness toward true childlikeness begins early in the parenting process. It flows naturally out of deep, abiding, and safe attachments between a child and his or her primary caretakers. This sense of emotional and relational security is a priceless gift that fathers and mothers can give to their sons and daughters. The implied message is one that communicates, “I love you. I’m for you. I believe in the best for your life and am confident that with God’s help, you will fulfill all He has for you. I give you my blessing.” From this secure base, a child grows into adulthood with an increased capacity to relate to others in a balanced manner and also exhibits greater emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) or a person’s Emotional Quotient (EQ), as it is sometimes referred to, is a subset of social intelligence that involves self- and social-awareness, the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate between them, and to use this information to guide thinking and behavior. The concept was initially defined by psychologist Daniel Goleman and has become a critical competency for navigating change and upheaval, including within marriages and families – important environments that are often full of emotion and passion.

Five distinct categories of Emotional Intelligence have been identified and you can see how they are connected to a person’s potential for success and wellbeing: (a) self-awareness, which includes emotional awareness and self-confidence; (b) self-regulation, which includes self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, and innovation; (c) motivation, which includes one’s achievement drive, commitment, initiative, and optimism; (d) empathy, which includes service, understanding and developing others, and leveraging diversity; and (e) social skills, which includes influence, communication, leadership, conflict management, building relational bonds, collaboration, and cooperation.

annie-spratt-126081Ultimately, having a childlike disposition before God shows a measure of peace and composure in one’s life. When trust is present in your spiritual walk, there is less need to call attention to yourself, less selfishness, and less angst to be in control of everything and everyone. The emotional stability that ensues can release us to be humble servants in our marriages, families, workplaces, churches, and ministries. Humility is not a sign of weakness, but evidence of a quiet and secure confidence in God.

David was king over all of Israel, but first and foremost, he was a shepherd. He knew what it meant to lead his flocks beside quiet waters, to have them lie down in green pastures.  He wrote Psalm 23 from a place of freedom and out of his own restored soul. Freedom from the fear of failure and the fear of rejection releases us to serve others with the same love that God does. When we find ourselves in authentic relationship with the True Shepherd, to be transformed by and through the Holy Spirit, then we will have a childlike faith. David understood this truth simply, but profoundly when he said, “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; nor do I involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me” (Ps. 131:1-2).



scalise_ericEric Scalise, Ph.D., is the former Vice President for Professional Development with the American Association of Christian Counselors, as well as a current consultant and their Senior Editor. He is also the President of LIV Enterprises & Consulting, LLC, and a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with more than 36 years of clinical and professional experience in the mental health field. Specialty areas include professional/pastoral stress and burnout, combat trauma and PTSD, marriage and family issues, leadership development, addictions, and lay counselor training. He is an author, a national and international conference speaker, and frequently consults with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues.