Recapturing the Joy of Childhood

Do you remember back when you were nine years old? How the prospect of turning 10 stood like a skyscraper, a monumental achievement, a towering number in two digits? You — yes, you — transformed into something larger, more important, closer to grown-upness?

For small children, imagination and reality exist on the same level. When you play a soldier, you turn into one. When you put on your Superman outfit, the fake muscles become real, and your thoughts take flight. A princess costume creates enchantment and elegance.

The magic mirror confirms, “You are the fairest of them all.

Playing these parts is unselfconscious, the pleasure joyous, the movements spontaneous. Summers seem endless, and the friends of every day never imagine a future without you.

Mom and dad demonstrate how to do things, read stories leading you to master the skill yourself, and are lovelier, brighter, and stronger than others who use the same pronouns.

The idea of illness never enters. The body housing you heals minor injuries in the time it takes for mom to give you a hug. Chicken soup and kisses serve as unfailing elixirs.

Limitless destiny carries the belief everything is achievable. Life (with the help of parents) offers gifts, birthday celebrations, prepared meals, and treats you like royalty. The guarantee of your guardians’ immortality and your own is never in doubt.


Gradually something happens. Imagination loses some of its footing while reality claims more of the ground. Spontaneity and uninhibited joy no longer arrive with the sunshine. Yet, the far side of childhood needn’t be as challenging as this sounds.

Yes, the magical healing power of mom’s touch has passed into yesterday, but other affections offer compensation.

Once middle-aged, long-standing friends don’t expect you to prove yourself. If you’ve done moderately well in pursuing your goals, achievements don’t insist on so much attention. Aches and pains may not be fun but are just the cost of living, companions reminding you to relish each instant.

Without childrearing responsibilities, more time exists to admire the sky and salute the moonlight. Meanwhile, experience has taught you the value of nature’s poetry and human kindness, evoking your gratitude. If you’ve largely escaped harm’s way, you recognize the life-enhancing necessity of giving something back, as well.

The delight of early life grows out of parental love, the dazzle of “first times,” and mastering the new world. In a sense, it also depends on the ignorance of life’s demanding adult future.

For those on the far side of youth, reclaiming joy requires something different. It asks for knowledge, not naivete: awareness of the inevitable end of things.

Recognizing that truth, all our remaining abilities and opportunities can grow in importance. We have the chance to learn and laugh, treasure precious friends and those we love even more, and savor nature’s beauty anew. They enlarge gratitude in what remains, so much of which was taken for granted before.

Life will never be perfect, but its imperfections provide perspective on what is essential at the day’s end. Chicagoans who remember Studs Terkel’s name will recall his gift of eliciting the best from the thousands he interviewed, the qualities we must seek for ourselves with age.

And, as if to remind us how to live, Studs always signed off his radio program with the words, “Take it easy, but take it.

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I am sure many of you have been moved by the human tragedies unfolding in Ukraine. Read more on how you can help Ukraine here.

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The sculpture is called Joy by Bruce Garner, located in Ottawa, Canada, as photographed by Jeangagnon. Beneath it is The Joy of Playing Together by Rasheedhrasheed. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

10 thoughts on “Recapturing the Joy of Childhood

  1. What an incredibly inspiring post, Dr. Stein! There was so much I loved about this well-written post, but these sentences particularly stand out, “Meanwhile, experience has taught you the value of nature’s poetry and human kindness, evoking your gratitude. If you’ve largely escaped harm’s way, you recognize the life-enhancing necessity of giving something back, as well”

    Beautiful! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drgeraldstein

    You are most welcome, Wynne.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Whew… isn’t that all the truth? Dealing with an aging parent right now. What unforeseen challenges those have been. Never thought of that even a few years ago!

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      It is hard to imagine what we have not seen, especially on subjects as uncomfortable as aging and mortality. Your parent is lucky to have someone such as you to help. Good luck, Laura, and thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “The inevitable end of things” has never been more clear than now as my siblings and I, “on the far side of youth,” spent our last reunion together on Sunday with our terminally ill mother. The joys of childhood were far from our mind.

    Like

  5. I think I can recall some joyous moments of childhood, but trauma took over somewhere and stole most of that joy. I grew up before my time (via adultification through childhood trauma, and parentification through childhood neglect). Growing up before your time steals the joys of make-believe, though perhaps my alternate personalities made up for some of that.

    The stages of life seem to grow more distant from innocent childhood playfulness whenever stress and trauma become the foci. As we become more responsible and less childlike, it seems like pretend-play and so many innocent thoughts are forgotten. It’s hard to recapture that level of playfulness – even though we can recall ourselves distally.

    But some people have had great childhoods. I wonder if they were able to retain much of that childhood wonder – the optimistic ways in which life has no boundaries, and life comprises endless possibilities without the fear of death, torture, abuse, intrusion, medical traumas, neglect, abandonment, breakups, terminations, failures, and more. Storytellers and gamemasters are probably great at recapturing childhood – the good and the bad, depending.

    Unfortunately, for me, I have much difficulty.

    Great posting though! 🙂

    Like

  6. Thank you, Dragon Fly. You’ve had a rough go of it, but remain heroic in fighting on. Be sure not to compare yourself to those who didn’t have hurdles so various, so cruel, and so high. Your continuing effort to recover humbles me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awe, thank you, Dr. S! I am guilty of comparing myself to others a lot! Sometimes I feel like my traumas are nothing compared to others, such as those who are fighting in the war in Ukraine, or those who were left behind in Afghanistan. I can’t imagine what life is like living in those places right now.

      But you’re right. It is heroic enough to fight on, and that journey doesn’t need comparison. That journey simply needs the willingness to move forward, and maybe also help others in the process (e.g., helping other hurting souls see that they aren’t alone in the struggle). 🙂

      Like

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