When my daughter Sophie was two and a half, she asked me one afternoon, “When are you going to get little again?”
Taken aback by her question, I simply said, “Huh?” but she persisted.
“When are you going to wear baby clothes and slide on the baby slide?”
As a speech-language pathologist and early childhood expert, I didn’t know what to tell her. I should have something right to say, I thought. Still, it felt so sad to answer, “Never,” to explain that time only ages us, simply pulls us forward, and never brings us back.
And yet part of me wanted to explain that I was past that, that all the mess and chaos of childhood was behind me, and I was fully into grown-up territory. There’s a strong line separating grown-ups and children, I wanted to say, and I’m on the other side—able to give advice, able to set limits, and done sprouting up the way children do.
And yet, I wondered, was I? Maybe not.
New Research Shows We’re Capable of Change
As adults, we often think we’re done growing when we’re eighteen, or twenty-five. And yet, as new research shows, our brains are actually more plastic than we’ve ever thought previously. Although it’s not as visible as the changes of children, we’re growing and shifting in ways we’re only starting to understand. This neuroplasticity is exciting, as it gives us hope that we’re far from “finished” as people after graduating college or high school.
Rather, especially through experiences that startle or shock us—what psychologist Dr. Robert Kegan refers to a “cognitive dissonance”—we’re often able to make profound changes in the ways we think, act, and behave, and even in terms of our understanding of who we are.
Parenting, in fact, is one such experience that can deeply change us, although we’re only beginning to understand how. We’ve long known that children change through the way they are parented, and legions of parenting books have popped us telling us how. But what about how parents change as people? What about the new people we become? Perhaps my daughter wasn’t so far off in talking about “becoming little.”
Of course, we don’t become childlike literally, but in wrestling with the highs and lows of child-raising—not only the high-stress experiences, but also the daily joys and monotonies—we can actually rethink the ways we act, relate to others, and view our lives.
For example, even my daughter’s one comment about becoming a child again made me reconsider how I thought about time. Previously, I’d always considered time as a linear process. But, as I started paying attention to my own development as well as my daughter’s, I realized that time can make leaps and jumps that surprise us.
Even more so than time, though, parenting offers us the chance to change as people. Researchers such as Dr. Pilyoung Kim at the University of Denver have started researching the parental brain, and have found that (at least for mice) parenting causes changes in areas of the brain used for planning and for regulating emotions. Perhaps the act of parenting triggers these changes, researchers theorize, since raising an infant offers hourly “opportunities” to plan what to do next or soothe a screaming child. Or perhaps there’s something hormonal that causes these shifts. Right now, we don’t know for sure.
Why Kids Need for Us to “Become Childlike” in Parenting
What is clear, however, is that the shifts are real—and that children need for us to make them. As Paul Tough wrote recently in the New York Times, “Positive influences in children’s early lives can have a profound effect on the development of what are sometimes called noncognitive skills.” That is, children’s emotional lives can be shored up by a positive environment, including parents who surround the child with consistent love and routines.
Without becoming “childlike” and following our children’s needs, it’s hard to become truly responsive parents. Learning to “see anew” through the act of parenting makes us better parents, and helps us thrive as people as well. When we dive deep into the trenches of parenthood, wrestling with the big and small decisions, we are changed. Certainly it isn’t always easy, but that’s the challenge: building up our own understanding and knowledge, even as we referee playground squabbles or dig with our kids in the sand. This is the opportunity that parenthood offers us: to be richer, more complex people, to rethink our own goals, values, and lives, even as we help children build theirs.