The mouths of babes
Listen to the little people — children can teach us valuable life lessons
PARENTS are often asked about the moral values and life lessons that they would like to teach their children. It’s less common for them to be asked about the lessons their children have taught them. William Saroyan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, said, “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”
Paulo Coelho, writing in The Fifth Mountain, was a little more specific: “A child can teach an adult three things: to be happy for no reason, to always be busy with something, and to know how to demand with all his might that which he desires.”
Here are a few other lessons we can learn from them. ÷ QUESTION EVERYTHING Children are always asking ‘why?’. This never-ending inquisitiveness can exasperate parents, especially if they don’t know why the sky is blue or why the moon is round. Yet every so often a child will ask a ‘why?’ that an adult can’t deflect or defer. When a six-year-old wants to know why you’re always working, or why you’re always looking for your keys or why you smoke, you can no longer hide behind self-deception. Some adults discover great power in the practice of self-inquiry, which Sri Ramana Maharshi termed “the most sacred of sacred”. Children practice it without even thinking. ÷ GET OVER IT A child can be having a mini-meltdown in the frozen food section of a supermarket one minute, and then chasing a butterfly down a pathway the next. In other words, they don’t waste energy dwelling on perceived misfortune, constructing victim narratives or holding grudges, just as they don’t hang around the climbing frame in the playground bemoaning their ‘nightmare morning’. If a child could detail their approach to overcoming adversity, it would probably go like this: Deal with it, move on, get an ice cream. ÷ PRIORITISE PLAYTIME We all know the proverb ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. The late play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith took it a step further when he pointed out that “the opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.” Adults need playtime too, of course. And children can teach us how toprioritiseit. ÷ DON’T BE STATUS-ORIENTED “Grown-ups love figures... When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand, ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.” So goes a famous quote from The Little Prince. The point Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was making is that children aren’t status-oriented. They judge people on the work they do or the car they drive — largely because they have more important things to be thinking about... ÷ JUST SAY IT Every so often a child will leave everyone in the room red-faced when they innocently bring up a touchy subject. They have yet to realise that complicit avoidance and collective denial are the markers of adulthood… Timothy Ferris, writing in the 4-Hour Workweek, says a “person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Children remind us that these conversations don’t have to be so uncomfortable. ÷ FIND STILLNESS IN NATURE Many teachers of the Zen Buddhism school of thinking talk about becoming mindful through nature. Jack Kornfield says, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” Eckhart Tolle says, “Look at a tree, a flower, a plant. Let your awareness rest upon it. How still they are, how deeply rooted in being. Allow nature to teach you stillness.” These teachings can seem abstract until you watch the way a child responds to nature. They don’t just look at a flower — they experience it. Children teach us how to truly connect to the natural world, just as they remind us to stop and smell the flowers every now and again. ÷ ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE JOYFUL It’s easy to spot the people who have retained a sense of their childlike spirit. When they get good news, they clench their fists and deliver an emphatic ‘YES!’ The rest of us learn to moderate our joy when we become adults. Rather than risk disappointment, we remind ourselves that good things don’t last forever. Rather than allow ourselves to be exultant, we tell ourselves that things are too good to be true. Because they live entirely in the moment, children allow themselves to experience the totality of joy. Luckily for us, it’s contagious. ÷ BE SPONTANEOUS I once answered the door to my nephew’s sixyear-old friend from across the road. He had in his hand an extra-large bar of chocolate and he wanted to know if my nephew could come to his house to eat it with him. I often think about that day and how much easier adult friendships would be if they were that spontaneous and straightforward. The busyness of modern life means most of us have got into the habit of scheduling our friendships. Children remind us that the best moments are often unplanned.