‘Peter Pan Syndrome’ Is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

Does the pop psych notion of Peter Pan Syndrome give boyish traits a bad reputation?

Peter Pan often gets a bad rap. Once upon a time, some psychologist (Dan Kiley, actually), decided to name a syndrome after the poor boy, which I don’t think is entirely fair. Sure, this godlike lad has his bad qualities, not unlike Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, yet these eternal children have endured over the years and been cherished by many because we love them so. All Peter Pan ever wanted to do was to fly around, have adventures, and never grow up. What’s so terrible about that?

While the Peter Pan Syndrome isn’t a real syndrome, at least not as far as the World Health Organization is concerned, I will concede that there are some adults who can be exceedingly immature, and inhabit fantasylands (Michael Jackson, anyone?). If you’ve lived with your parents all your life, never held down a real job, and you’re already thinking about retirement, you might have a few unsavory personality quirks that need to be addressed. Nevertheless, when one human being accuses another (more often than not, a man) of suffering from this syndrome, it’s seldom meant as a compliment. It signifies that the person in question is selfish, unable to tackle responsibility, and exists in or at least seeks out a state of carefree living often associated with childhood and adolescence.

I believe adults should meet the responsibilities and challenges life demands, such as obtaining a good education, working hard, buying food, paying rent, looking after loved ones and participating in various social processes. That being said, an awful lot of the burdens ‘responsible’ citizens believe they have to shoulder are probably unnecessary.

The amount of time devoted to work in order to obtain funds which facilitates the accumulation of things, which many people consider a sign of responsibility (and proof of work and income) can become a huge waste of time in a society no longer concerned with subsistence hunting and farming and the need to fend off wild predators. You don’t have to set up a massive television in every room of the house, and you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a set of Ittosai Kotetsu kitchen knives—unless you’re a professional chef, of course. The stuff that you and your friends buy, and then pile up in garages and rented storage units because you never use it, robs you of precious life, regardless of the job you work (love or hate it) to pay for all of the junk you’re hoarding.

For a society as obsessed with timesaving appliances, cool gadgets and youth culture as ours is, it’s odd that no one ever seems to have enough time. It’s probably because they’re busy working in order to buy more useless stuff (ask the ghost of George Carlin—he knows). When people decide they want to play more, and shirk off some of society’s obsession with amassing plastic material wealth, they run the risk of getting slapped with the Peter Pan syndrome moniker. Settling down (what grownups do), to many, simply means collecting more and bigger stuff.

Of course, there’s a balance between enjoying life to the fullest and taking care of the basics needs necessary for sustaining that life, while still contributing to society and dealing with and raising a family. Even so, I’d like to defend some of Peter Pan’s better traits. He’s brave, he can fly, and he doesn’t age. Furthermore, he’s very suspicious of adults, as he should be, because (in my opinion) their existences tend to revolve around the accumulation of debt, stuff, ex-spouses, neuroses and emotional baggage. Then they usually try and justify their often less-than-exemplary behavior with some kind of ‘ism.’ There’s a lot to be said for clinging to some of the better qualities associated with youth, while still acting in, and confronting, the ‘real’ world when need be.

Maybe another term should come into play for the Puer aeternus, to counter the overwhelmingly negative connotations of ‘complexes’ and ‘syndromes.’ Perhaps the ‘Peter Pan ideal’ or the ‘Peter Pan paragon’ could become a part of the popular vernacular, exemplifying those traits that a healthy infusion (not obsession) with the dreams and wonderment of childhood can bring. After all, many of us are looking forward to retirement, or at least a day when we’ll be less overwhelmed by work, when we’ll finally get to ‘play’ again, like we did when we were young.

 

Read more of Carl Pettit’s weekly column, Root Down, on The Good Life.

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About Carl Pettit

Carl Pettit is a writer, illustrator and musician whose education and travels have taken him all over the world. When not out exploring, or pondering the universe, he finds time to produce fiction for both adults and children. You can catch up with him on his blog, or twitter.

Comments

  1. Actually, the phrase “Peter Pan Syndrome” is more often used by women to attack men for failing to live up to women’s expectations and demands, i.e., “Where are all the stable, successful provider-men for me to marry now that I’m done partying?”

    A more useful concept is MGTOW: Men Going Their Own Way, i.e., living on their own terms and doing what appeals to them and makes them happy (rather than what makes a woman happy). And that’s not just acceptable, but admirable…. no matter how many women complain about it.

    • Most of the talk of peter pan/manchild are about men who have the house, the social life and the career, but aren’t in a relationship or married with children. Selfish in this case comes down to “why don’t you make a woman your wife” ? What’s more hilariously is that the articles about this will talk about men’s lack of interest in getting married as a problem because decades ago it was different. Well color me shocked that men and people in general don’t want to pattern their lives after people decades before.

  2. No man or woman is an island or is self-made all on their own.

    I actually think men and women become better people when they learn to relate to one another, sometimes put their own needs aside infavor of someone else, learn to communicate and respect each other despite their differences.

    My romantic relatoinships with men have made me a better, caring, more considerate person and loving partner. If I did not have these romantic relationships, I would only ever think about *me* and my own needs, wishes and desire. And ultimately, I don’t think that’s very healthy. When I was younger, I was more selfish. I believed that since I wanted certain things, that men would want the same things. It took some hard lessons and experiences with men in romantic relationships to really learn to relate to them.

    Yes, live your own life, make your own choices, find what makes you happy as long as it doesn’t harm others. But there are some lessons you can only learn through your partnership and relationship with others. And these are the things that will ultimately define you. How much fun you had won’t. I’m not saying fun isn’t great. But it shouldn’t be put on a pedestal either.

    Carl, at one point you mention our youth obessed culture but then you say you like Peter Pan because he doesn’t age and adults are stuck on the wrong things. I actually like people that grow into themselves and enjoy shedding their old ages and look forward to their new stage of life. Obviously adults have more baggage because adults have more experience. I prefer this over someone that hasn’t had the chance to build any baggage because of their lack of experience. Because only then do we see what someone is really made of.

  3. Mary Alice says:

    Too bad the mothers of these grown men’s children don’t have the luxury of playing Peter Pan.

    • If he is self supporting, Why would it effect his parents? Does he need to marry and have kids, to support the social contract? If so, why? If that is what makes him happy, more power to him.

  4. Peter pan syndrome is an illusion and made up insult some women use when a man has a set of interest she doesn’t agree with.

    Many men who fall into this category have jobs and families but still have a hobby that they have enjoyed since childhood such as making models or playing games. This is completely normal and fine to do, as many men aren’t interested in families which is seen as a normal aim for a woman nowadays so if its not fitting their norm its seen as weird or a threat so insulted.

    I personally don’t meet many women I consider datable material and get called many different names for not settling, many women still go out and get wasted as they get older which is no different than acting childish themselves but will complain if a guy plays a game for an hour or two every so often with friends online.

    As a geek I enjoy programming and playing with electronics so I would easily fall in this category myself but if doing something I enjoy in my spare time puts in in this category I honestly wont be bothered by it, women are no different and are often seen getting drunk up town even more than men are especially when single, why aren’t they judged by the same standards.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    Is someone who “never grows up” a bad thing? Depends on how people define “growing up.” There are plenty of things that people associate with growing up that are not necessary for adulthood, for example getting married or having children or getting a mortgage. So, some men are labeled with that syndrome who are in fact fully fledged adults but are just not following everything their culture has told them to do.

    It’s developed into a shaming device, mostly wielded against men who don’t live the way that the women in their lives want them to live. Much of it is based on fairly arbitrary distinctions between “childish” activities and “grown-up” activities. Spend 2 hours a day playing video games and you are a child. Spend 2 hours a day playing chess and you’re a sophisticated adult. Spend 2 hours a day playing bridge or golf and you are a respectable member of the community. These are all just 2 hours of playing.

  6. Brian Reinholz says:

    I think there’s some fair points on both ends…I agree with what many of the commenters are saying (and the author too, I’d say) that it’s not fair to call someone childish just because they aren’t caught up in the bigger/better consumeristic debt cycle, or just because they have a hobby that seems a little childish (like playing strategy games or something).

    That being said, I think there is a certain level of responsibility we should each take for society and the communities around us. That doesn’t necessarily mean you HAVE to be involved in civic discourse, charitable giving, neighborly service to those in need, and quick to help your friends load up a moving truck. However, I think if we’re totally self-focused in life it’s a sign of immaturity, and ultimately will result in strained relationships and (most likely) a dissatisfaction for life in general.

    On the same note, I think being born into privilege (whether that’s financial/racial/cultural/whatever) begets responsibility to improve society as well. I’m sure people can debate until they’re blue in the face on what exactly defines privilege and who that includes, but to some extent probably all of us have been gifted with certain privileges beyond the general populace and we should use those privileges to benefit society (and have fun). :)

  7. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I think they mean a type of narcissism, a fairly useful diagnosis, in spite of the APA’s waffling on it. (Many psychiatrists probably have it is why.) It’s pretty distinctive from sociopathy, which they tried to dump it into, knowing that most of them wouldn’t qualify as sociopaths. I think it can keep one creative. (I’m not going to reveal the contents of my Milan personality test here!)

  8. Even people against the idea of label someone because of what they do, can’t help but to link certain acts to a person’s level of responsibility, maturity and adulthood.
    Don’t be fooled, people are judgemental and they’re using a criteria of their own life and experiences to judge you.

  9. It’s difficult for me to hear “Peter Pan Syndrome” and not think of JM Barrie himself. If not Barrie, the person who comes to mind is Michael Jackson, who led an eerily similar life to Barrie’s. Perhaps for most people the phrase refers to men who refuse to follow society’s standards of “growing up,” but by naming it after Barrie’s personal fantasy means I cannot help but associate it with him. Barrie did not look like a full-grown adult, due to his pituitary disorder, and so had difficulty socializing and relating to others, preferring the company of children. His “morbid” obsession with his own nephews (and youth) culminated in the suicide of one of them, immediately followed by Barrie’s own.

    He was a tragic figure, and the fantasy of Peter Pan is a very sad one when read alongside Barrie’s personal history. If “Peter Pan Syndrome” means anything to me, it is very negative and much more dysfunctional than that which the author laments.

  10. Vinnysgirl says:

    Rob, have yourself tested for Aspergers. Many men who fit the PPS criteria are actually on the autism spectrum. The lack of empathy and penchant for daydreaming, avoiding household chores and general laziness are the hallmarks of both the Aspie and Peter Pan.

  11. I think the Peter Pan Syndrome is a serious issue but what people don’t know is that it can occur to either women and men…

    …this article will clarify everything
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/200806/essential-secrets-psychotherapy-the-inner-child

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