Edith Sullwold brought considerable energy,
understanding, and sensitivity to the difficult task of
distinguishing the personal from the archetypal
qualities of the inner child. Her warm and particular
feelings for the child's inner life are blended here
with scholarship, interpretive skill, and a
storyteller's knowledge of her material. This essay was
originally delivered by the author on November 20, 1987,
as the keynote address at the conference Reawakening the
Inner Child, in Washington, D.C. Dr. Sullwold, who was a
child therapist and therapist supervisor, had generously
agreed to expand and adapt her talk expressly for this
collection, to once again sound the keynote on the inner
of my favorite quotations regarding the child comes from
a rather unlikely source, the pen of George Bernard
Shaw. In an essay that asks, what is a child ?, he
An experiment. A fresh attempt to produce the just
man made perfect, that is, to make humanity divine. And
will vitiate the experiment if you make the slightest attempt
to abort it into some fancy figure of your own, for
your notion of a good man or a womanly woman. . . . If you
begin with its holiest aspirations, and suborn them for
own purposes, there is hardly any limit to the mischief you
This statement seems to speak with a profound
understanding of the nature of both the outer and inner
child. The idea that a child is a "fresh experiment"
implies that the child is viewed as an individual with
gifts and limitations particular to his or her own
unique nature a being who can contribute to the
exploration of life's meaning, who can contribute to the
richness of life's possibilities.
This new being, out of necessity for nurturance and
guidance, finds himself in a particular family, a
particular culture, a particular education. Within these
particulars are rules, values, and systems to which the
child begins to adapt, becoming shaped by them. This
shaping often happens to such an extent that the child
is no longer connected to those aspects of his being
which do not fit within the structure of these outer
forms and expectations. For some, adaptation means that
those gifts which do not fit within the structure or are
not valued are submerged and consequently lost, not only
to the individual but to the culture as well.
In others, the vitality of these gifts cannot be so
easily submerged. Lacking appropriate channels for
expression, the energy behind these gifts will cause
pain, as can any energy when it is blocked and pushes
for a chance to live.
This experience can be like that which Wordsworth so
well describes, "Shades of the prison-house begin to
close / Upon the growing Boy"
refers to the Divine or Self aspect). Every time I read
this line I feel within my own body the double strain of
restriction from the outside and the organic pressure of
growth from the inside.
While writing this, on the first
glorious day of spring, I went outside to watch our
tulips open in the sun. I noticed some day lilies that
had struggled to come up through a few boards left over
from our winter building project. The force of these
fragile shoots in a vital push for growth was amazing,
but because of the restriction of the boards they were
bent, distorted, and somewhat yellow. Once out into the
light and free of the boards, perhaps they would be able
to straighten up, continue to grow, and eventually to
blossom. But they might never gain the fullness of other
flowers nearby that had only the open space of sun, air,
and rain to meet as they emerged.
So it is often with the child. The board once used to
provide structure may crush or distort the natural
organic life of our children. We need to be continually
vigilant in looking tinder those boards examining our
value systems and our assumptions about reality.
Where shall we turn for the inspiration and
encouragement to lift up the debris of the old and
restricting structure our notions of the "good man" or
"womanly woman" of which Shaw speaks? Unfortunately,
these images are often formed out of an unconscious
acceptance of the collective definitions of success,
health, and normality.
Here Shaw's last phrase is important the idea that the
child has his or her own "holiest aspirations," own
unique path. In this context, the word "holiest" may
have two meanings. The aspirations or intentions are
seen to have a holy or spiritual source. And we know the
word "holy" is related to "whole." To take this gift of
life we are given and carefully, respectfully help it to
grow to its fullest can be the "holiest" task. This
growth must include all aspects of our being as
individuals, not only those that are sanctioned by
collective values. This urge to grow is as natural in
each of us as the urge to push up past the boards was in
the day lily. C. G. Jung says in his essay on "The
Psychology of the Child Archetype" that the image of the
child "represents the strongest, the most ineluctable
urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself.
The divine aspect of the inner child that resides in us
all is a source that when consciously realized can give
us the courage and enthusiasm of exploration to break
out of our "prison doors." I use the word "divine" to
distinguish this aspect from the inner child which has
been formed by memory of personal experience that is,
the neglected, abused, unfed, unloved, overdisciplined,
overjudged child, as well as the vulnerable and needful
aspects of the child we once were. This is the child
our child of experience which we all desire to heal,
so that we can reclaim the energy for adult action that
still resides in the reactive patterns of defense and
protection that we developed in response to early
painful experiences. To heal this child also means that
we will not unconsciously continue these patterns with
the "fresh experiments" that are our own children.
The actual child of our memory is no longer who we are.
Though we have survived beyond it, we frequently
continue to live our lives unaware of patterns we
adopted when we were young, and thus we limit the scope
of our living in the present. The consequences of the
hurt, fear, anger, and loneliness of early years have
been given much recognition in recent years in
psychological theory and therapeutic practice. However,
when the spotlight is thrown on early experiences, other
memories also can return positive images of events
that supported the child's natural exuberance, curiosity
and adventurous exploration, the deliciousness of the
senses and the richness of the imagination. These
memories, allowed to emerge, give us a sense of the
history of our pleasure and pains, reconnecting us to
the being we are now as adults. How we live in the
present is a consequence of all the events which have
come to us in our experiment with living.
In addition to memories of actual events, we often carry
within us an image of the ideal childhood, one with
perfect nurturance and guidance. It is the childhood we
would have liked, constructed out of the limitations of
our own experience. By comparison, we find our own
childhood wanting. This image is sometimes projected on
others whom we perceive as having had a perfect
childhood, and we increase our loneliness and pain as we
mourn for the ideal. Frequently this image is also
projected on our children as we try to provide a perfect
childhood for them, at the same time creating an image
of ourselves as the perfect parents.
One antidote for this paradisical idealization of
childhood is to share our stories and history with
others, discovering thereby that the common human
condition of children and parents is a complex blend of
successes and failures, gifts and limitations.
Behind these images of the actual and the ideal
childhood is the image of the divine inner child
mentioned earlier, which comes from the deepest
archetypal level of our being. This archetypal image has
as its universal function the task of seeing that our
experiment with living remains fresh. The divine inner
child has innocence, which the Zen master Suzuki Roshi
called "beginners mind." It represents spontaneity and
the deep urge of the human soul to expand, to grow, and
to explore vast and unlimited territories.
Sometimes this inner child makes very strong demands,
presenting itself in emotions of anxiety, depression,
anger, hopelessness, or in physical symptoms. Sometimes
it brings us subtle and fragile new shoots of
inspiration a sudden idea, a dream, a fantasy, or a
feeling of longing for something renewing. The natural,
vital force of this archetype wants recognition by us
and cannot be ignored without consequences. If we do not
claim its enlivening energy for ourselves, we often
project it outwardly. If we place the archetypal child
onto our outer, physical children, then they will carry
the burden of our own creative development.
This inspiring image of the inner child represents the
creative aspects of life, both within the individual
human being and in the collective. It is expressed in
myth, the metaphorical realm of history. In every
culture there are stories of the birth of the special
child child of the gods, goddesses, and heroes
timeless stories that belong to the species. As we hear
these ancient stories we can perhaps resonate with them
as songs of our primal origins. Here we can rediscover
and remember the roots of our own nature, our instincts,
and creativity, and recognize elements of our being we
once knew instinctively. They can remind us of our
incipient wholeness, which was in our origins.
Perhaps it is best to give an example of such a story.
My favorite one among the Greek epiphanies is time story
of Hermes as a child. Hermes is born of a union of Zeus
and the wood nymph Maia. Maia's name reminds us of the
month of May; of Mary the mother of another Divine
Child, Jesus; and of Maya, the mother of Buddha. To
protect Hermes from Zeus's jealous wife Hera, Maia keeps
the infant in a cave, as if in a second womb. Zeus has
abandoned his new son and has returned to Olympus and
his old family.
Maia, a spirit of nature, cares for
Hermes. A trickster in character, the child escapes the
cave in the early morning of the first day of his life,
creates a lyre from a tortoise shell, and steals his
brother Apollo's cattle. Apollo apprehends his young
brother and takes him to trial at the court of Zeus.
Hermes, according to Homer, replies to all-knowing
Zeus's accusations, "How could I have done such a thing?
I was only born yesterday," and winks at Zeus. At that,
Zeus laughs, and all those on Olympus laugh with him.
Zeus's only dictum is that harmony be established
between the two brothers, a feat that is ultimately
achieved when Hermes plays the new instrument of harmony
he has created, the lyre.
In this story we find the universally common elements of
mythic tales recounting the birth of the divine child.
Although there are variations of plot, circumstance, and
costume, these mythic dramas seem to share a skeletal
structure that defines the general qualities and
characteristics of the inner child, attributes that have
much meaning to us psychologically.
In the first place, these children are born under
circumstances of unusual conception and delivery
unusual from the point of view of ordinary human birth.
These conceptions are sometimes the result of the union
of spirit and human, as in the immaculate conception of
Mary or in the case of Buddha's mother, who is
impregnated by an elephant. Sometimes the union is that
of a god with some aspect of nature, as Hermes born from
Zeus and the wood nymph. The birth itself can be
unusual, directly out of primal elements of water or
fire (Venus), or out of the head of Zeus (Athena), or
from his thigh (Dionysus).
These unusual births speak metaphorically of the
emergence in us of a new beginning that comes from
unknowable, unexpected, out-of-the ordinary sources and
creates spontaneous birthings within our own psyches.
These may come as hunches, dreams, visions, or emotions.
If the outer personality or the culture has developed in
a one-sided, restricted manner, the appearance of the
divine inner child will presage the possibility of
renewal and expansion. The inner birth may be conceived
through an outer event that startles or surprises us.
Perhaps seen as an accident of fate, it awakens us to a
new insight of life possibility.
The child, so unusually conceived and delivered, comes
into a particular situation, culture, or order that is
already formed, whether in the realm of the gods, the
underworld, or the human sphere. This world has its own
established patterns and principles represented by those
in power, and this unusually created and creative child
is in most cases in great danger from the old order.
Even Apollo attempts to destroy his precocious baby
brother, Hermes. Herod kills the young in order to be
sure of destroying the Christ child. Hera, always
jealous of Zeus' mating with the new and virginal
elements, seeks to destroy the progeny of such unions.
These rulers represent in us the old structure that does
not want to lose its power to the new and divinely
conceived being. To incorporate the new, the old must
give way to change.
To be sensitive and responsive to the promptings and
demands of this inner child, who is constantly urging us
to be more, opens us for change. On the other hand, the
discomfort of this experience will often result in
attempts to placate, distract, or tranquilize this inner
child, or to ignore it and deny it time and attention.
Thus we jeopardize our own "holiest aspirations."
In addition to danger from the existing order that wants
to maintain its established power, these divine children
of myth and psyche are exposed and vulnerable because
they are often abandoned by one or both parents, as Zeus
abandons Hermes. Within our own psyches this may
indicate that the ordinary familiar parents, patterns of
what we already know, abandon this child to his own
devices to find his own singular, non-conventional place
in the order of things.
Although abandoned by his divine
parents, the child is often protected by guardians from
the earth realm, representations of the natural forces
in our own simple, primitive nature that can nurture
this special child quietly, with a kind of earth-peasant
knowledge. This natural force can allow the child to
become earthed, to become incarnated in us in its own
natural organic timing.
The child's place of birth often offers some protection.
Hermes is born in a cave, a kind of second womb. So was
his father, Zeus, protecting him from being devoured by
his father, Chronus. Christ is born in a stable, since
there is no room at the collective inn. And here again
it is the animals and shepherds who first surround him.
In this protected place, the child can gain strength
until ready to enter the threatening world.
Psychologically, this protection may represent some
development in us a creative idea, a dream, or a new
attitude or relation to life that should not be
manifested or brought out into the light before it has a
certain maturity and can survive on its own and,
consequently, can bring effective and integrated change
to the old order. Christ is twelve when he returns and
speaks to the elders in the temple.
Paradoxically, this abandoned and threatened child that
needs protection is already full of creative
individuality and indestructible power. It is the
extraordinary gift of Hermes that creates the lyre and
threatens Apollo with the magical power of trickery.
Buddha, just born, walks seven steps from his mother
and, pointing both upward and downward, declares himself
Prince of all that is above and below. It is this power
that draws the three Kings of the Orient to come and
worship the Christ child.
In fact, it is precisely this recognized, prophesied,
intuited power that is such a threat to the old order.
It is not just an ordinary event, this birth. In
psychological terms it can be seen as a manifestation of
the Self, which demands a restructuring of the
personality. This can lead to a painful disintegration
of the old form and often a time of confusion,
loneliness, and disorientation before the new order is
These potentially painful trials are sensed by the
currently ruling principle in the personality, the ego.
The ego may set up resistances in an attempt to silence
the new voice. But being divine, it will not be
silenced. We always have before us the choice of
listening to it cry to us out of its prison, or to join
its exuberant, joyful movement toward an expanded, more
humane life. Then we can enter with it into the world of
Hermes brought laughter and the sound of soothing,
harmonious music into the world of Olympus a new
ingredient in the kingdom to be acknowledged and
appreciated, changing the quality of the realm forever.
In the modern adult, the energy of the inner child may
result in dramatic changes in lifestyle and image. It
may lead only to the pursuit of new interests or habits.
But once born in us, this child will demand that we
expand our world to include it, to suffer the
abandonment of our own inner familiarities that
sustained us, and to tolerate the loneliness arising
from creative action conceived out of an inspired
connection to the new. The prize to be won is our
totality, a totality hinted at in our beginnings and to
which we are inexorably drawn. It is possible that
cultures can also be so renewed, old orders reexamined
and reconstructed, leading toward a more harmonious
world for the human race.
The archetype of the inner child, then, can bring a
sense of hope to the hopelessness of our personal
history and world history. It reminds us of a time as it
was in the beginning, the moment of creation, the new,
the unexpected, the individual difference that changes
the whole. This is the promise of the "fresh
experiment," the promise of the inner child.
1 George Bernard Shaw, "Essay on
Parents and Children," in Prefaces (London: Constable &
Co., 1934), p. 47.
2 William Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality
..." in Laurel Poetry Series (New York: Dell, 1968), p.
3 C. G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 9, part 1, The
Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Princeton,
N.J.: Bollingen, 1954), p.170.