THE PETER PAN SYNDROME

Is it a conscious choice, or something more deep-rooted?


By Mandy Wan: Literature Columnist


Peter Pan made his first appearance in J.M Barrie’s The Little White Bird (1902) where he was depicted as a 7-day old child, contrary to the popularisation of his adolescent form. The Peter we know now emerged in Barrie’s novel, Peter and Wendy (1911). In all iterations of the character, he is a notoriously playful boy who can fly and remains the same age forever. When we look past the elements of fantasy, we can find the essence of Peter in many members of society today.

Peter Pan Syndrome is a term used for adults, typically men, who are excessively immature and irresponsible. In other words, they never grow up. Dan Kiley in his book, The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men who Have Never Grown Up (1997), describes them being “trapped in hell between the man who no longer wants to be, and the child he cannot be.” For instance, they may be unmotivated to get a job or leave them frequently due to boredom or minor difficulties. Even if they are employed, they make no effort in advancing to promotions and commonly work exclusively part-time due to a fear of commitment.

Another affected area of their lives is their ability to maintain relationships. Those with Peter Pan Syndrome may carelessly spend savings and be unwilling to address personal issues with their loved ones. In addition, they neglect household responsibilities and the needs of their children for the sake of prioritising their entertainment. Substance abuse and an inability to take responsibility for their actions further promote their need for escapism.

Although it is commonly believed that Peter Pan Syndrome is exclusive to men, we must consider the fact that Kiley’s research was conducted in the 1970s where gender roles were more enforced in comparison to the present day. Nonetheless, recent studies have supported the notion that males are more likely to be affected. Kiley also noted a Wendy Syndrome (named after Peter’s companion) that typically affects women. Those in this role, much like the stories, enable the Peter Pan in their lives by taking responsibility for their careless actions, offering emotional support, and so on.

The condition is thought to be caused by a number of factors in a person’s life. A significant pattern prevalent within their childhood is the presence of extremely permissive or protective parents. For example, overly permissive parents fail to establish boundaries for their child’s behaviour and allow them to act in whatever way they wish. Likewise, they fail to punish them for misconduct and as a result, the child grows up oblivious to the consequences to their actions.

On the contrary, overprotective parents may be solely focused on preserving their child’s youthful outlook on life to the extent that they ignore teaching skills such as simple household chores, maintaining relationships, and budgeting. In turn, this forces the child to handle these tasks alone which would understandably be overwhelming and discourage them from trying.

“ALL CHILDREN, EXCEPT ONE, GROW UP.”

― J.M. BARRIE, PETER AND WENDY (1911)

It is also speculated that the modern economy can play a part in reinforcing the symptoms of Peter Pan Syndrome, especially for the younger generations. In a report produced by Georgetown University in 2013, they suggest the technological and structural changes in the American economy have made it significantly more difficult for young people to transition from adolescence to adulthood. Furthermore, increasing tuition fees for higher education have added another layer of financial stress and anxiety. Some are unable to juggle these concerns with other aspects of their daily life and instead deflect this responsibility, typically to a significant other or parent.

It is important to bear in mind that childishness in adulthood, to an extent, is not entirely detrimental. In fact, light-heartedness and a relaxed outlook on life can reduce stress and improve emotional health in the long term. Therefore, it is crucial for each of us to try and maintain the ever-elusive balance between work and life.

mackayan: peter pan