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.