I'm looking for a word that is similar to anthropomorphize but that means projecting adult characteristics onto children. I have a pre-verbal child and it is very easy to make up reasons for her behavior but we know that we are projecting our thinking onto her. I'm just curious if there is a term for it.

  • 3
    I will attempt to answer the question, but I'd suggest asking on a psychology-related exchange, since the terms you're using (projecting) and concepts (what children think) are related to psychology. Dec 14, 2018 at 19:14
  • 1
    Hi Jennifer, welcome to EL&U. You might not be aware that there are strict rules for single-word-requests: "To ensure your question is not closed as off-topic, please be specific about the intended use of the word. You must include a sample sentence demonstrating how the word would be used." You can add this using the edit link. For further guidance, see How to Ask, and make sure you also take the EL&U Tour :-) Dec 15, 2018 at 6:54
  • An antonym for infantilise...
    – Dan
    Dec 15, 2018 at 16:02
  • @Chappo thanks for the help! It looks like I got some great responses so hopefully it's okay that I not come up with a sentence this time around. Dec 17, 2018 at 19:39
  • @TaliesinMerlin I didn't realize that there were different exchanges until today, lots to explore! Thanks! Dec 17, 2018 at 19:40

3 Answers 3


Developmental Psychology

The American Psychological Association defines the noun adultomorphism as:

  1. the attribution of adult traits or motives to children. Compare pedomorphism.
  2. more specifically, the tendency to reconstruct developmental phases by extrapolating from adult psychopathology. —adultomorphic adj. — American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary online.

The second definition, as you can probably guess, is a critical use of the term aimed squarely at Sigmund Freud.

Although the California Behavior Inventory for Nursery School Children warned against “objectionable ‘adultomorphisms’ in the choice or definitions” in 1933, the quotation marks alert to a nonce word invented for this particular use.

The term only begins to be used in earnest in the late 1940s–50s:

At the beginning of what might be considered the modern era of infancy research, Spitz and Wolf (1946) drew attention to dangers inherent in a tendency toward “adultomorphism.” — Daniel Offer, Melvin Sabshin, Normality and the Life Cycle, 1984, 4.

This is a reference to an often-cited monograph by René A. Spitz (with the assistance of K.M. Wolf), The Smiling Response: A Contribution to the Ontogenesis of Social Relations, 1946. Frequently credited with coining the term, this work was responsible for its further usage within the field of developmental psychology as well its eventual appearance in specialized dictionaries.

The word got a further boost from its appearance in an article published by Jean Piaget in 1950, translated into English in 1962. The original French may lie behind this Canadian usage, though Piaget is not mentioned as its source:

In 1932 an investigation was made of children's responses to the Rorschach (T12). The author discovered that if children were scored according to the standard procedure they showed bewildering tendencies to mania or schizophrenia. … Such adultomorphism has tended to pervade personality studies and only recently has become a cause of concern in the child-clinical field. — Mary L. Northway, “The Research,” in Twenty-five years of child study, Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto, Karl S. Bernhardt et al., eds., 1951.

They [Piaget, Inhelder] use the term “adultomorphism” to refer to the tendency on the part of adults to structure or view the behavior of children in terms of adult experience. — John S. Stewart, Toward a Theory for Values Development Education, 1974, 325.

Not everyone, of course, got the memo:

Is this not sheer "adultomorphism," if I may be permitted to coin a word? — Jules Homan Masserman, Science and Psychoanalysis 20 (1972), 113.

Apparently unfamiliar with previous usages of the term, Masserman could simply coin the word himself on the pattern of anthropomorphism or zoomorphism and know he would be understood:

Adults may also find their thinking “seduced” by the assumption of adultomorphism, a made-up word based on anthropomorphism, or the assumption that animals think and feel as humans do. Adultomorphism is the assumption that infants, children, and adolescents share the motives and abilities of adults. — Jean Mercer, Thinking Critically About Child Development, 2015.

It’s Greek to Me

For those concerned with the purity of neologisms drawn from classical languages, there is a glaring problem with adultomorphism: adult derives from Latin, while morphism is Greek. This type of hybrid is the linguistic equivalent of wearing stripes with plaids, thus the word enelicomorphism was coined using a Greek word ενήλικος, ‘adult, mature’. This word actually predates adultomorphism, but beyond the 1930s seems to have had limited use outside dictionaries:

Adultomorphism. The attempt to interpret children's behavior in terms proper to adults. (Syn. Enelicomorphism, ant. pedo - morphism.) — Hans Jurgen Eysenck, Wilhelm Arnold, Richard Meili, Encyclopedia of Psychology v. 1, 1972, 27.

enelico morph ism (adultomorphism) A practice or belief (-ism) in attributing the structure (-morph -) of the mental processes of adults (enelico-) to small children … — Howard Wilkening, Gregory Wilkening, Peter Wilkening, The Psychology Almanac: A Handbook for Students, 1973, 66.

Although Baldwin was early in discerning this principle, he did not have the full secret of the reflex-circle, and he unfortunately made use of the hedonic concept, e.g. 'delight,' which in addition to other defects involves the fallacy of enelicomorphism - since this circular activity appears in early infancy. Israil A. Latif, “The Physiological Basis of Linguistic Development and of the Ontogeny of Meaning. Part I,” Psychological Review 41(1), 1934, 55-85, 66.

Rasmus Rebane, the Estonian blogger who cites Latif, comments:

Enelicomorphism is adultomorphism by another name (this odd term was proposed by Howard C. Warren after "ενήλικ" in Greek for "mature").

Warren, the first head of the Psychology Dept. at Princeton (1920), died in 1934. Rebane’s comment, however, shows that despite its mixed heritage, adultomorphism is the established term.

General Usage

Neither adultomorphism nor its purely Greek twin enelicomorphism seems to have roamed very far from the field of developmental psychology. The qualities that make it attractive for technical use — purely descriptive, compact, no affective connotations — are the same that would make it unlikely in speaking or writing about babies and small children for a more general readership. A variety of phrases can be used:

A common error in the popular and scientific literature on | children involves projecting adult processes or states backward and assuming that children possess the characteristics of the mature person. — John E. Anderson, “The Development of Behavior and Personality,” in: Eli Ginzberg, ed., The Nations Children 2: Development and Education, 1987, 53f.

More than one reviewer of Stevenson's poetry criticized him for mistakenly ascribing adult perspectives to child readers. —Richard Ambrosini, Richard Dury, Robert Louis Stevenson: Writer of Boundaries, 2006, 79.

Continuing with the borderline creepy act of projecting adult qualities onto children, Sandra Bullock says her two-year-old son Louis is a total player – calling him a "flirt" who "appreciates the fairer sex" but thankfully leaves her out of the mix. — 21 Dec. 2011, Jezebel.

And with that, it seems we’re back to Freud.


As a parent with a pre-verbal child, I understand the tendency to project adult characteristics on children. I have called my own kid "patient," "kind," and so on, even though these aren't necessarily the same qualities an adult would have.

I don't think there's a single word like anthropomorphize to describe the phenomenon unless it's been coined recently. Instead I'd say that you're either projecting or attributing adult characteristics. You can go down quite the Wikipedia rabbit hole with attribution.



(third-person singular simple present adultifies, present participle adultifying, simple past and past participle adultified)

To treat a non-adult like an adult.

Apart from the Wiktionary entry given above (and due to its responsive, editable model Wiktionary is problematic as an authoritative source), adultify can't be found in any dictionary I've looked in.

However, with a Google Books search you can find adultify in use with the meaning you require - projecting adult motivations onto children or attributing them to them.

As the examples below show, adultify is also used for inappropriately treating children as adults in a variety of other contexts too, from heterochronic use of adult physical characteristics in portrayals of children to placing excessive or age-inappropriate responsibility upon them.

Some examples follow, with emphasis added on the key term.

Cynthia Crosson-Tower (2003), When Children are Abused: An Educator's Guide to Intervention

Mothers tended to see their children as "adultified" in several different ways. Typically, adultification involves inputting motives of adult complexity and (usually) malice to children out of frustration...

('Inputting' might be a misprint or an OCR error and imputing may well be intended.)

Joseph D. Lichtenberg, ‎Frank M. Lachmann, ‎James L. Fosshage (2011), Psychoanalysis and Motivational Systems: A New Look

Does the beatific smile exchanged between a mother and a three-month-old qualify as experience we can call love? Or are we accurately reading the mother, but adultifying the child?

Rhonda L. Clements, ‎Leah Fiorentino (2000) The Child's Right to Play: A Global Approach, p177

Vandenberg (1990) suggested that toys had become a major instrument in the push to educate and adultify children. This accusation raises concerns about the way children are increasingly seen as a population to be manipulated by the adult world and that they are especially vulnerable as consumers.

A. F. Robertson (2004), Life Like Dolls: The Collector Doll Phenomenon and the Lives of the Women Who Love Them

The Lenox Christening Doll is a curious example of the tendency to adultify... Her mouth and jaw are much more robust than we would expect of an infant. "Crafted of bisque porcelain and meticulously hand painted, she is portrayed sleeping sweetly, with a projection of pure innocence."

Sabina E. Vaught (2011), Racism, Public Schooling, and the Entrenchment of White Supremacy

Yet, in their very enactment of false empathy, they adultify the boys (Ferguson 2000), making them responsible for adult male choices. By not blatantly adultifying the boys, but appearing to empathically reject adultification, these filmmakers then entrench the very adultification they are rejecting as an objective condition of Black male youth.

Joyce A. Arditti (2014), Family Problems: Stress, Risk, and Resilience, p169

Vanessa does very little in the way of decreasing her son's adultification when she relies on him heavily, and quite inappropriately, as her primary source of emotional support to cope with her own disappointments in life...

A very slightly different sense can be found in the example below, where the child is assuming the adult role, albeit perhaps out of necessity:

Kevin J. Corcoran (1992) Structuring Change: Effective Practice for Common Client Problems

Adultification occurs when a child assumes adult roles before adulthood. Spousification occurs when a child becomes adultified and subsequently bonds emotionally as a spouse with a parent.

In summary, adultify is much more general than the situation you're seeking a word for, although your use case is definitely covered by it. Also, while adultify is a neologism that hasn't made it into dictionaries yet, it's firmly established and it has the benefit of being intuitively understandable, especially with context.

"mini-adults", "mini adults"

Note that this isn't an answer in itself.

The phrase mini-adults is worth knowing as it is a non-obvious and useful phrase used in discussing similar concepts to what you have in mind.

The context and origin of the term can be seen in the introductory lines of the Wikipedia article on the history of childhood:

The history of childhood has been a topic of interest in social history since the highly influential book Centuries of Childhood, published by French historian Philippe Ariès in 1960. He argued "childhood" as a concept was created by modern society. Ariès studied paintings, gravestones, furniture, and school records. He found before the 17th-century, children were represented as mini-adults.

Other scholars have emphasized how medieval and early modern child rearing was not indifferent, negligent, nor brutal.

(Emphasis added.)

A few examples, again found with a Google Books search follow:

Daniel W. Wong, ‎Kimberly R. Hall, ‎Cheryl A. Justice (2014) Counseling Individuals Through the Lifespan, p11

Early pictorial presentations of children, at least those before the 17th century, showed them in adult dress, with eerily adult facial features— truly mini adults.

Graeme Foreman, ‎Andy Bradshaw (2009), An Introduction to the Fundamentals of Movement - Part 1

I would like to propose three principles of child development that ought to be remembered by all coaches, teachers and policymakers:

  • Children are not mini adults.

  • Children are not mini adults.

  • Children are not mini adults.

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