Modern societies are very interested in tracking how children grow up. Twentieth-century psychology, beginning with the work of the Swiss clinician Jean Piaget, pioneered an approach to child development which meticulously identified and labelled every principal stage an average infant might go through on the developmental journey of its earliest years. Thanks to this work, we now know that at six months, a child will be able to sit up on its own, pick up a small object (such as a raisin) using a thumb and forefinger and recognise its own image in a mirror, though it will most likely take another three months before it can drink from a cup on its own and understand simple requests. By two, it will start to say ‘I’ and ‘you’ and it will probably be able to put on a hat by itself. Around four, one can expect it to use sentences several words long and quite possibly invent an imaginary friend (an achievement that belongs to what Piaget called the Symbolic Function Substage). Between the ages of four and seven, children enter what Piaget termed the Intuitive Thought Substage, in which they begin to grasp abstract concepts but have difficulty holding on to distinctions, typically making mistakes around the use of ‘less than’ and ‘more than’.
Parents, uncles, aunts and grand-parents tend to be deeply interested in these developmental milestones – which become the stuff of family legend and the material for photographs and playfully supportive stories. Around the family table, much is likely to have been made of the first time a child took its own steps, the first time it assembled a sentence with a verb in it and the tribulations and triumphs of the first day at school. Families have a background sense that celebrating these milestones is part of what encourages a child to keep going with the hard business of maturation.
However, a curious silence sets in with age. Gradually, the attention society pays to the maturation of an individual becomes ever more coarsely grained. For a few years, we still have a picture of some of the stages of psychological and emotional growth but these are much less precisely known, named and identified. We’ve got a diffuse notion that a 14 year old will be different psychologically from a 17 year old, but it can be hard to pin down exactly how and why.
After twenty or so, the vagueness becomes overwhelming. Insofar as there is any kind of script of post-childhood development, our public thinking concentrates on external, material matters: we track what someone gets in their university degree, what job they secure and how they progress up the corporate hierarchy.
Yet, in truth, we never stop growing up. The possibility of emotional development is present throughout life. We don’t track the changes, but they may be occurring nevertheless, with none of the public status accorded to a big birthday, a promotion or a business school degree. Perhaps between the ages of 27 and 29, without anyone really focusing on this happening, we may radically rethink our view of how to handle our parents’ shortcomings. Or our view of envy takes a leap forward in the middle of our 36th year. Or, as we approach 45, lying in bed early one morning in a hotel, we amend our sense of who is to blame in certain marital conflicts. We may look more or less the same, but inside, slow, unheralded emotional shifts may be gestating.
A capacity for emotional development is constantly available to us, but we have nothing like the clear, detailed terms of reference that babies and young children enjoy – and that might give us the encouragement we would need to note and foster stages of growth. It’s a symptom of the neglect of the whole idea of emotional growth that we are used to narrating our own lives – to friends and ourselves – with the emphasis firmly on the external and the material. If asked by an old acquaintance how the past few years have gone, we would be unlikely to nominate a new approach to anxiety or a reconsideration of guilt as among our proudest achievements. It would simply feel more natural to recount how we’d moved back to Singapore after a stint in Taipei or had taken on a new, and properly significant, role in developing online sales.
In other words, we live in a culture that refuses to foreground the idea of lifelong emotional development, not because such a script is inherently impossible, but because it hasn’t taken the care to write it. But in truth, every adult life contains – in latent form – a set of skills that we can acquire on a map towards maturity, each stop in its own way as significant as a child mastering a quirk of language (in English, for instance, saying ‘I thought rather than I thinked’) or learning to ride a bicycle.
On an ideal map of emotional development, there would be stops that would identify our acquisition of a range of key insights. For example, it would herald as a crucial developmental milestone when a person becomes seriously willing to admit that they might not know themselves very well, or that they might not always be in the right – even though it feels as though they must be – or that they can recognise that they must strive to explain their irritations with others with calmly-delivered words, rather than simply falling into a sulk. We know how to celebrate someone’s fortieth birthday, but we would – in a wiser world – also know how to have public celebrations of the moment when a person had finally developed the skill of apologising or of recognising that the bad behaviour of other people usually has more to do with anxiety and fear than nastiness.
Other areas of life show us the benefit of having clear benchmarks of progress. In the aeronautical field, we are able to track someone’s increasing knowledge of flying, from their first theoretical exams through to their ability to fly a jet across an ocean. In golf, there are precise handicaps to register strengths across the fairway. But when it comes to our inner lives, we still find it grievously hard to identify and tell a developmental story. We speak in vague terms about someone still having some growing up to do – or we might express a wish to take time off to learn a bit more about ourselves. But our hold on the underlying milestones remain perilously weak and sketchy.
In an ideal society, emotional development would attract the same kind of interest and prestige that currently attaches to career or age milestones. Currently we might throw a party to celebrate professional advancement, the start of a new decade or the move to a new house; in the future, we might do so to mark someone’s newfound mastery of self-compassion or serenity around sexual issues.
In an ideal society, it would not only be children who went to school. Adults in general would see themselves as in need of continuing education: of an emotional kind. One would know one had to stay an active alumni of a psychological curriculum. Schools devoted to emotional intelligence would be open for everyone, so that children would feel that they were participating in the early stages of a life-long process. Some classes – about anger or sulking, blame or consideration – would have seven year olds learning alongside fifty year olds, the two cohorts having been found to have equivalent maturities in a given area. In the Utopia the phrase ‘I’ve finished school’ would sound extremely strange.
At present we don’t give any acknowledgement to the key fact that people can, and must, continue to grow internally and make psychological progress across life. We don’t typically have any clear sense of what that progress looks like – and how we might encourage it. We struggle alone. That’s why, in a better world, we’d keep going to school, just a very different school to the one we knew as kids: a school of life that would help us with the ever-tricky and unfinished business of becoming that elusive thing: a real grown-up.