Lessons from a Very Young Child

These are some whimsical pieces I wrote for InspiredTimes and that I have had some great feedback about. So here they are for you to enjoy. the children concerned are my grandchildren.

Lessons from a young child : Forgiveness

Plenty has been written about forgiveness, but honestly -- it often feels a bit cerebral, technical even.  If you want to learn what forgiveness is then you have to go to an expert. I’m lucky enough to know several. Little Zoe, aged 3, has been my great teacher in this respect, and her sister, aged 8 months has been fairly impressive too.  

In the course of being with these two I’ve done just about everything wrong.  I’ve put on diapers back to front; I’ve offered food they really don’t like; I’ve failed to know the right way to stop them crying. These can be real crises for small children, don’t forget that. In every case my blunders caused tears and upset, but within minutes they’ve returned to being their usual serene selves.

They just let it go.

What has this taught me? That forgiveness is instinctual, immediate, and free. It doesn’t have to be asked or begged for. It’s our natural condition.

It’s also told me that not forgiving – holding a grudge, clinging to a resentment – is almost certainly a learned response.  We have to teach ourselves to do it. And then we only do it because we imagine it will bring us a reward of some sort eventually. This is not true, of course, unless one considers pouting and blackmail to contain any rewards. 

So we can only conclude that this is what people believe when they fail to forgive.

Stairs

I was going up the narrow steps in my daughter’s house, carrying a glass of water, when Ellie (3 and ½, as she proudly informs everyone) appeared at the top of the stairs. With a shriek of delight she yelled, “Grampy!” and flung herself at me, leaping off the top step.

I caught her. There was never any danger of me not doing that. The danger was that this 30 pound kid would knock me off my balance and we’d both fall down the whole flight of steps. The water glass went flying, and I stood there giving her a huge hug. When I put her down again, carefully on the top step, I had to tell her, please, don’t ever do that again when I’m on the stairs. I didn’t want to seem harsh – after all she was showing her affection, and that’s not something I want to inhibit.

Later, as I reflected on our narrow escape from disaster I realized something more. For many small children a certain type of fear doesn’t really exist. Ellie was utterly confident she’d be caught and held. There was no danger for her; she just didn’t see it. This tends to produce a question, though. To what extent is fear a learned response? We have to learn it so we don’t do anything silly, and so we get to survive in a world of speeding cars, stairs, and things that can hurt us. And yet by teaching fear we inevitably quash something valuable in the growing child, something that may inhibit the bold decision-making that is often so valuable.

At 3 and ½ one can’t really talk Ellie through this, pointing out that some fear is good and other fear is unhelpful. How many of us, as adults, have been stuck in the place of fear? Whether it’s about how we can survive if we give up our job, or if we can bear to be without our partner, fear will stop us moving ahead, sometimes to our detriment. To leap, as Ellie did, confident that she would be held and not fall – assured that the universe would not let her down - how great a lesson is that? 

 I sometimes feel that many of us have learned the fear I shall call Prudence at the cost of it replacing Confidence.

Gardens

I’m not much of a gardener. I have a small slightly scruffy yard - which is a step up from the place I lived previously. There the yard was overshadowed by a large, sprawling locust tree under which nothing would grow. When the tree had to be taken down I discovered that, in fact, nothing at all could grow on that barren urban soil – except Locust trees.

So you can imagine my delight when spring came along and my present garden erupted in patches of blue flowers I had not planted, and a neglected Azalea produced vast quantities of blossoms.

The kids (aged 3 and 5) also enjoyed it. And they showed their enthusiasm by wanting to pick as many of the blue flowers as they could, so they could make ‘flower soup’ as they called it, in a pink plastic pail. I could feel myself wince. This was the garden, for goodness sakes, this was Nature doing its thing and we should not be picking it or trampling it. I wanted to tell them to leave the flowers alone.

I was surprised by the strength of my reaction. So I took a deep breath.

It was then that I recalled my own feelings about gardens and flowers. I remembered going on a walk with my parents when I was quite young and finding a huge field entirely full of what I think were cowslips, bright yellow flowers on stems about eight inches tall. I picked them freely and presented them, proudly, to my mother.  What she was going to do with an armful of yellow flowers I did not consider. We were a long walk from home, and the cowslips wilted badly along the way. I don’t think any of them made it back to the vase on the dining room table.

I recalled another memory, of the bike track we kids had made among the trees of Mrs. Hobdell’s garden. Her woodland paradise became a racetrack, and the daffodils probably never recovered.  Or the time we drove a go-kart around my uncle Roger’s field where he and his service buddies played soccer every Sunday in Fall. We tore up the turf with our wild side-ways skids.

No one had told us not to. No one punished us. We were just being kids.

And that was when I looked up at the girls, picking flowers and reaching up for the azalea blossoms, stepping in all the muddiest parts of the garden, and saw the beauty of the moment.

As far as I’m concerned from now on they can pick all the flowers they want.

Statues

Little Zoe (still not three) teaches me a huge amount, continuously. 

A few weeks back I posted a couple of Facebook pictures of her hugging some life sized statues of children that had been placed around a statue of the Virgin Mary at the local church. The statues were concrete, plain white, and she spent about half an hour hugging them all in turn, even the sheep. This happened each time we went past that church.

I was bemused. She seemed to think they needed some love.

Yesterday we went out together to choose a Christmas tree. We then took it home, decorated it, and enjoyed its transformation. When it was time for Zoe to leave I said to her, “ Say goodbye to the tree”. I expected her to wave at it or say “goodbye tree” or something. Instead she walked towards it and hugged it. A few decorations were disarranged, but who cared.

When one is three, and innocent of the distinctions adults place on things, surprisingly beautiful things happen.

Dreams

When Zoe wakes up she has a little bit of a hard time transitioning from the world of sleep and dreams to the world of here and now today. It occurred to me that the “here and now” world is actually something we all have to get used to – with its odd demands and hard edges. It’s a world that seems to require we take it seriously, whether we want to or not. This must be confusing for any small child who loves imaginative play and whose dreams are, presumably, not fenced in by the solid boundaries of this world.  It’s a coming down to earth that must often feel discordant, and compared to which our own daily struggles to get out of bed and get started are slight.  Why? Simply because we’re used to it. Zoe isn’t.

And yet – our world is one of our own making in terms of how much emphasis we place on it.  If we believe that we absolutely have to get to work on time or life as we know it will end, then, yes, we will be taking this world of ours as seriously as we possibly can. But there is a down side to being so focused and serious. Stress and unhappiness often are the results of such a life. If we buy into the cliché that hard work and dedication will make us wealthy, and that wealth is what we need above all else, then we will take the stress, accept the unhappiness, and seek the wealth of our bank accounts. Then, presumably, we will feel satisfied sitting isolated in our trophy room as the last vestiges of life wither from us – because we did what we were supposed to.

But what if the things we’re supposed to do are all delusions, delusions as misplaced as other delusions that we buy into? Many people buy into the idea that guns are necessary and make them safer; others have the delusion that anyone with a dark skin is inferior; still others believe that there is no Global climate change problem. And so on. These are all delusions. And the delusion that democracy will cure all our problems is right in there, too, because it doesn’t take much thought to realize that crowds can often be very wrong about very important things. It all depends upon what they buy into as beliefs.

Zoe doesn’t buy into many of those beliefs yet.

Watching a political debate the other night she said, “Look at those kids”.  She simply didn’t believe these were adults having an adult discussion.

I have to say I agreed with her.

Walking

Walking with Zoe (aged 5) I notice that plenty of people stop to smile at her, ask her how old she is, and generally be friendly. People also tend to be kind in small but not unappreciated ways. A young chap saw me with Zoe and a big bag of groceries, and stepped forward to open a door for me.

I find myself astonished at how gentle and caring total strangers can be.

Reading the news, and all its ghastliness, one would never know how basically decent the world is.

There’s a whole lot of love out there, just waiting for an opportunity to show itself.

Party Time

A while back we were at a neighborhood party with Zoe (5). It was a pretty noisy gathering, with all the adults jabbering away in a room with a decided echo to it. I could barely comprehend what the woman in front of me was saying, and she had the voice of a parade ground sergeant-major. 

As I turned to see what Zoe was up to I noticed that she was sitting on a chair talking quietly, with absolute clarity, with a small boy who was holding a stuffed toy squirrel. They seemed to be discussing different types of toys. I leaned down and discovered that they were actually speaking very softly, and yet they had no trouble hearing and being heard. How did they manage it?

I asked my chatty lady if she knew, and she laughed and said something about ‘selective attention’. And that set me thinking. How is it that these children had the gift of tuning out all the noise, all the stuff that meant nothing to them? I would have expected them to be yelling too, under the circumstances, but they weren’t. Not at all. 

Perhaps we all need to learn how to tune out more of the ‘noise’ in our lives so we can concentrate on the real communication. Perhaps we once had that ability but we forgot about it, or ignored it. Perhaps we might want to learn how to find those quiet moments in the heart of our days.

How to Hold a Baby

Zoe (5) and Ellie (3) have recently welcomed twin sisters into their lives. They are very tender in placing kisses on the twins’ heads, making sure each gets the same number. The other day I overheard the following conversation as Zoe sat on the couch cradling her baby sister.

Zoe, to her friend who was visiting: “Would you like to hold a baby?”

Little friend: “I’ve never held a baby before. Is it hard? How do you do it?”

Zoe: “It’s easy. You hold the baby like this, with your heart.”

What more could anyone need to know?

Swimming

It was exceptionally warm the other day. And so I dragged the wading pool out of retirement, inflated it, and filled it early enough in the morning so that the sun could warm up the water by the time the girls (3 and 5) arrived. If they weren’t interested, I thought, then I could always set up a chair and put my feet in.

The girls were considerably excited by the pool, and squealed with delight at the cold water on their toes. The plastic ducks and toys soon had them enthralled.

Every so often one of them would yell, “look at me!” and then would make an extra large splash, or pour a pail of water over her head, or some such thing. The chorus of the day was, “look at me!”

This got me thinking. Why do kids like to be looked at when they’re doing something like that? They had my total attention already. I wasn’t going to take my eyes off them when they were near water. Yet again and again they were shrieking with delight and asking me to look.

Then it struck me that in a few years perhaps they’d be kids who might not want anyone to look at them. That they’d become like most kids – shy of being seen enjoying themselves, shy of having others notice if they were doing something new, fearful in case they weren’t doing it ‘right’.

But for right now there was no judgment to fear; and so they ran, and splashed and fell over and laughed without ceasing.

Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if adults felt as free to share every small new achievement with such unrestrained joy? Wouldn’t it be lovely if we celebrated every inconsequential thing with enthusiasm like theirs? Perhaps there’s something here to be learned about joy. It seems we’re born with it, and then most of us pretend we don’t have it anymore. 

Toys

I’ve noticed that the concept of a toy is a very broad one – and one that can tell us a few things if we are alert. Little Zoe (4) has always chosen her toys based on her imagination.  Yes, the cardboard box is often more enthralling than what’s in it, and that’s always been true for her. But better yet is the way she doesn’t buy into the idea of what is “special”. The cherished antique teddy bear from my mother is not more important to her than any other toy. In fact she’s just as likely to hug and cherish a rolled up sock or the plastic number 7, and she will sometimes insist on taking to bed with her such things as a toothbrush – having developed a lively imaginary rapport with it during the course of the day.

The toys she returns to get hugged, dropped, thrown, and need frequently to be dusted off, washed and repaired. They get trodden on, forgotten, remembered, and generally have a hard life. Like parents, they have to undergo all kinds of indignities, but their job is to simply to endure; ours is to recognize that all of it, every bit, is part of the messy business of love.

We’re not here to look pretty, like dolls, nor to sit safe on a higher shelf. We’re here to be in the rough and tumble, get messy, and know that this is love.

Colds

One day I had a bad cold and couldn’t babysit. So I called up my daughter to tell her. Little Ellie (just 3) immediately said, “Let’s take grampy some soup to make him well!” Zoe (almost 5) immediately wondered how they could get soup to me without spilling it.

There’s a little of Zoe and Ellie in all of us. There’s the big picture idea and then there are the details that seem to make it impossible. That day I learned that beautiful, generous gestures sometimes get lost in the details. The trick is to make sure those big ideas don’t get sunk. We need both ways of seeing.

Lessons from a very young child – her own view

Take time to let me see things. If I’m walking along and I get distracted by a pebble or a bottle cap it’s because I haven’t seen many of them, and they’re fascinating. I want to stop and look. Every flower is an adventure for me. So don’t hurry me along or drag me away. Don’t you want me to notice things?

When I get ready in the morning, please allow me some time. I can put on my own shoes. I can get into my own jacket, most of the time. If you rush me, if you insist on doing it for me because it takes too long for me to do it on my own, what are you teaching me? That I can’t do things?

It takes time for me to do stuff that you do easily. But when I do things for myself it makes me feel proud and grown up. I feel confident about everything. So take some extra time, and let me do it.

Sometimes when we’re out shopping and I see something I’ll say “I want it!” Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Mostly I just mean that I want to hold it, whatever it is, for a while before I put it back. I don’t want to own it. I just want to know what it is, and by holding it I can get a better sense of it. I’m not telling you to buy it. 

If I feel like dancing, will you dance with me? Wouldn’t that be fun? Why do they play music in stores if they don’t want us to dance?

I like it when we read stories together. I don’t always remember the stories. What I remember is snuggling up close to you, looking at the pictures and sharing that cozy feeling. Read it again! Please?

I can peel my own banana. It tastes better that way.

If you let me I can make up my own games.

Sometimes I get angry when I can’t say things, when I haven’t got the words. But I get much more angry and sad if I think you have lost patience with me trying.

Sometimes I’ll say: “I can’t do it” because I want you to do it for me. What I really mean is: can you help me and show me how to do it for myself?

Conversation

Older Relative to Ellie (2 ¾) “What do you want to be when you grow up, Ellie?”

Reply: “Ellie!”

More Lessons from a very young child.

Eye contact matters.

Sometimes running to the store to pick up milk and eggs can be a great adventure. Those shopping carts are really a lot of fun.

Table manners are over-rated. So what if a bit of mess happens? Enjoy the food.

Naps are good. Anyone who’s cranky probably needs one.

If you bounce around and have fun it frees up a lot of things (even if it’s only your stroller breaking loose from its moorings…..)

Sometimes, as a baby, I know stuff I can’t put into words.  But I still know it.

Whatever you do I will imitate, if only for a while.

There’s always something to smile or laugh about, just because it’s fun.

You’ll fall down and bump your head. Don’t focus on it. There’s plenty more interesting stuff to do.

Some things are hard, like learning to walk.  But if you stick with it you’ll get it soon enough. Giving up isn’t an option.

Play with the toys you want to play with. Don’t play with what anyone thinks you ought to have if you don’t feel like it.

It’s good to have a quiet corner to call your own. Claim one.

Further Lessons: taught by a very young child

You don’t have to respond to someone just because they call your name and want you to do something. 

You don’t have to smile on demand. 

You don’t have to be what anyone wants or expects you to be. 

You don’t have to perform. 

Love the people you trust. Trust is a feeling, not a calculation. Ask for what you want.   

The people who are paying attention will understand what you mean right away, long before you have to shed tears. 

Be you. Everyone who is paying attention to life will love that you’re being you and will become more themselves as a result.

Those who don’t get it won’t get it, ever.

Life asks us to play, and if that means the living room looks like a disaster zone after a few minutes that’s perfectly OK. It just goes to show that adults have stopped knowing how to play properly. It’s your job to teach them.

Sometimes the wrapping paper and cardboard box really are much more exciting than what’s inside.

Loud noises are scary. But anything that even comes half way close to being music is magic.

Wonder is everywhere.

Join in. It doesn’t matter if you can’t actually speak yet. You can still make encouraging sounds and be part of the conversation.

Tents are fun. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.