At 80 I'm Grateful for My Childlike State of Mind
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy, Founder of DADvocacy Consulting Group, and Newly-Minted Octogenarian
The child is father of the man.
– William Wordsworth
It takes a long time to become young.
– Pablo Picasso
In our innermost soul, we are children and remain so for the rest of our lives.
– Sigmund Freud
If I try convincing myself turning 80 is “just another year,” then I’d be wrong.
Birthdays with zeroes at the end provide an opportunity for meandering ruminations and abundant reflections. A reckoning of sorts. All can come with affirmations and regrets as well as an occasional introspective ambush. And so I seize the opportunity inherent in this decade change: a carpe decennium.
A lot more attention is paid to child development than to adult development. As I begin a new decade, I’m acutely aware that I’m at a different stage of development as a dad and a granddad than I've ever been before. The same is true of my adult “children” and, more obviously, my five grandchildren (ages 14-24). And so, it is natural for relationships to be constantly in a state of redefinition. How we acknowledge this and readjust is fundamental – do we embrace it or do we feel threatened by it?
When one’s 80th birthday arrives after more than a year of pandemic destruction and the rising and setting sun adds to a grim, worldwide death toll not seen in more than a century, the natural intimations of mortality that come with the territory of aging are amplified. One may even need to work harder to ward off the increasing thoughts and concerns of imagining one’s death.
The goal of life is to die young – as late as possible. Ashley Montagu
If one is courageous, such times/conditions allow one to take stock. To think back upon one’s life, consider regrets, take joy in happy times, and savor those times when joy was abundant but the perspective to savor it may have been limited. During the “automatic pilot” days/daze of younger years, the opportunities for reflection are fewer and further between.
As 80 has arrived, I think about how old that number of years seemed when I was 20, but how fortunate I am to remain vital of body and mind, with thoughts and behaviors more akin to childhood and youth. How fortunate to embrace those thoughts and not let them shrivel. And this “works” just fine as long as I don’t linger beyond necessary glances in the mirror, in the “looking glass”…
I’d be wrong again to think about the message in a country song my friend Rob passed along, as it was sent to him on his 70th birthday by his brother-in-law. The song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” written by Toby Keith, was the answer Clint Eastwood gave him when Keith asked him how he keeps going at 88 years old.
Yes, that is a perspective, one that may even offer some “wisdom” to live by – health allowing – to not let the old man in. But from my perspective, it is more important to keep the young kid in.
Keep the young kid in!
Except, of course, when you are with young people when it may be important to let the young kid out. Actually, like so many other things in our lives, it’s best not to think about these seemingly contradictory perspectives as an “either-or” option, but rather as a “both-and” proposition. Let me explain.
Childhood is the name of the world’s immediate future; of such, and such alone, is the promise of the kingdom of man. Walter de la Mare
While I’ve found it useful to not fully allow the old man in, it can be useful to keep the door ajar for him as a reminder to consider lessons learned – and share them when appropriate – and to be cognizant and intentional to seize the time remaining. And I’ve not been beyond taking advantage of opportunities to surprise people with comments and attitudes unexpected from geezers – to maintain my inner smart aleck and allow my always-lurking, prankster instincts to make themselves known. (One of my most treasured gifts received from one of my grandkids is a plaque that reads: “Grandpas are there to help children get into the mischief that they haven’t thought of yet.” It was presented with the statement, “Whoever wrote this must know you, Grampsy.”)
For me, embracing my inner child has always been a more important attitude to myself and my world. To not abandon the childlike – which is distinct from childish – qualities that manifest in:
A sense of wonder
Expressive and bountiful compassion
A sense of humor that can range from silliness to sophisticated wordplay
A willingness to question
A desperation to learn
A playfulness of mind and spirit
A need and desire to show love and to receive it
An optimistic outlook
A resilient mindset
A rambunctious and unwavering commitment to improving the human condition.
In his book Growing Young (1981), Ashley Montagu labels the idea of retaining childlike qualities into adult life as neoteny – the idea that as one gets older, it is of great value to maintain innate qualities of childhood. And he regretfully observes that these essential qualities tend to fade as we grow older.
I was wise enough to never grow up while fooling most people into believing I had. Margaret Mead
There is a symmetry to the average life span – the essence and nature of our humanity seem more concentrated at the beginning and the end. Those things that make us most authentically human seem to stand out in relief from the intervening years.
For me, it’s the constant and dynamic interplay, the dance between the elemental features of childhood and the learned lessons en route to adulthood that we must be mindful of and enthusiastically embrace as our years add up. We must resist the sclerosis of “maturity” at the expense of the vitality and exuberance of neoteny. So I’ll keep the door ajar for the old man to come in when opportune and for the kid to sneak out when circumstances beckon as they are rife to do when we’re so attuned.
And I don’t see anything wrong with that.
The wise man retains his childhood habit of mind.
What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret.
– Hal Ketchum
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, a “bonus” son, five grandchildren, and three “bonus” grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.