Do you ever yearn to recover the happiness, the freedom, the joy of your childhood? Well you can have it once again!
Sure, adults have responsibilities children don’t have; we have to function in a different way in the world. But it’s easy for us to get too caught up in being adults and not notice that much of what we lost as we could keep. Or to put it another way, much of what we have learned is not helpful and gets in the way of the life we could live. I believe that we can learn much from our children that will not only allow us to be happier people, but will also allow our relationships to be richer and our livelihood to thrive. Today I offer up five lessons that I think we can all learn from children, and conclude with some practical tips on how we might embrace and start to incorporate these in our lives.
Lesson 1: Innocence
A child is fresh and uncluttered and so approaches its life with innocence and naiveté. From this place curiosity is natural, and so is non-judgment. Everything a child experiences is new and exciting and full of joy and wonder. As you move through life, you start to build up memories and put them in mental boxes. Your life conditions you and over time pattern recognition, judgments and mental barriers start to build up. Slowly the adult emerges, believing itself in control and able to use its accumulated knowledge and wisdom to chart out a life. A prudence and practicality emerges, but it is not yet wisdom. The accumulated experience that gives rise to our adult decision-making fabric certainly allows practical and safe decisions, but it also cuts off so much possibility.
Unlike the journey from caterpillar through chrysalis to butterfly, the journey to adulthood contains much that need not be so…or that, having become so, is reversible. You can make an intentional decision to challenge the judgments that you have accumulated, to examine your opinions and recognize that they are an artificial reality you have created and maybe not representative of the real world. It is possible to look at children at play and to learn from their freshness and innocence in ways that can inform your life.
Which brings us to the next lesson, simplicity.
Lesson 2: Simplicity
For a child, life is simple. A child has not yet developed a sense of the complicated network of cause and effect; people and experiences are at not as entangled for a child as they become for an adult; there are not yet boundaries and differences, a separation between the possible and the impossible.
This simplicity, to an adult, is naive, and part of life’s journey involves learning how to deal with complexity. But is an adult who has filled their life with complexity really any happier than a child? Experience suggests that the happiest adults are those who get least caught up in complexity, and that for all the adults I know, their moments of greatest happiness come at the times of least complexity, whether that be quiet time with family or during a two-week vacation.
So I am not encouraging foolishness or reckless disregard of the responsibilities you’ve taken on; rather I’m pointing you at something that you can see and which you know, which is that joy lies in simplicity. That simplicity is full of possibility and potential, and that the fulfillment of potential – for example getting a promotion or passing an exam or buying that new car – can give rise to satisfaction, but doesn’t actually make you happier.
The lesson is to notice the joy of simplicity, to learn from a child that simplicity is actually pretty easy, and to realize that growing up doesn’t require you to lose simplicity. Minimalism is an extreme word for something you can easily start to put into practice today…and if you look into this and take the first couple of steps, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at the result.
Lesson 3: Spontaneity
A simple, innocent life is one of possibilities. It is one in which there is no particular expectation of an outcome or result or “what comes next”. It is one in which the constraints of “what I am expected to say” or “what I should do” have not yet emerged. It is a spontaneous life.
This aspect of the life of a child is the place where imagining and novelty happen. From a practical standpoint it is a life in which creativity is the norm. And creativity is a really important part of human existence that not only has practical implications, but also fills our souls. It is a tragedy of our modern way of life that we seem to expect the loss of creativity to come with adulthood.
This loss of creativity is bemoaned by a business world which runs workshops and pays consultants considerable amounts of money to help bring it into the workplace. I recently had a conversation on #NewBusinessMindset (Susan Reed: Igniting Creativity) about this. It is not only a terrible waste, but it is dreadfully sad that we have so considerably abandoned spontaneity, for it is such a natural and important part of the human condition. Fortunately it is one we can recover by watching and learning from our children how to put aside judgment and cultivate innocence and playfulness and naiveté.
Lesson 4: Forgiveness
A child will get angry – far more angry, perhaps, than an adult – but in an instant can forget its anger and completely move on. A child can be enraged by a friend or sibling and just moments later be playing happily with the same child as if nothing had happened. A child has an ability to forgive deeply and completely move on which it is easy for an adult to lose. There is a freedom of spirit here which means a child can experience its anger more deeply and intensely than an adult might, and also the child can more completely release its anger and experience the intensity of joy more deeply.
When you grow into an adult you learn practical reasons to not completely forget the behaviors of others, not to move on completely. These are certainly important. But equally important is to recognize this comes at a cost, that by not allowing yourself to completely forgive, you lose the ability to move on. You can become stuck, always carrying buffers and memories and cautions which prevent you immersing yourself completely in the experience of your life; which prevent you completely enjoying your life.
More broadly a child when a child is sad, upset, excited, ort happy it is completely in that emotion, surrendered into it without reservation, and once the emotion is over the child moves on to what comes next. The child is naturally able to completely let go of an emotional state and move on. Surely it is possible for us to allow ourselves to move more deeply into our emotions, and to see that by doing so it not only becomes easier to move on, but it also heightens and enriches our life?
Lesson 5: Live In The Present Moment
Much is written about “being in the present moment”, but unfortunately much of that is superficial and trite. If you allow them to, children can teach you much about this and bring you closer to knowing what it means.
There is an important distinction between “knowing” and “understanding”. I look at understanding as intellectually grasping, figuring it out, adding something to your life which allows you to think or process information or act in a particular way. This understanding is certainly interesting and can lead to much writing and discussion and scientific theory, but I’d put it forward as the booby prize. “Knowing”, on the other hand, is much more just “being”. The verb “to know” shares an archaic meaning with the verb “to be (with)”: they both mean to sleep with another person. This points to knowing as a deep, intuitive connection beyond words and thinking.
Being in the present moment is like this. If you place the emphasis of “be in the present moment” on the verb “be”, then “the present moment” takes care of itself. And this is how a child lives its life. A child doesn’t think about being in the present moment. It even consider not getting caught up in the past or the future or its ideas and judgments. For a child there are no past and future. A child just naturally is. It has no ideas and judgments of past and future or even of present; there only is what is. The lesson for us is to recognize that as adults we carry a lot of baggage around, baggage we have picked up through the course of our lives, and that it is this baggage which prevents us from living in the present moment. The lesson is to notice the baggage and see what happens if we put it down. The lesson is to see that if we do start putting some of it down, our lives don’t start falling apart, but rather they become lighter and freer.
How To Learn and Practice The Lessons
These five lessons sound great! But you are a responsible adult with an important role of protecting the children in your life, of earning money and paying the bills. Can you really be expected to learn these lessons? And is it really possible to put them to work in your life?
The answers to these questions are “yes” and “yes”.
As a nation and a culture we are terribly up-tight and take ourselves way too seriously. If we could just lighten up, this wouldn’t seem so hard after all. Maybe you can start by just giving yourself a break. Perhaps take the lesson of forgiveness and apply it to yourself: you are likely being way too hard on yourself. Do your family really want all that you think they do? Have you asked your small kids if they really want that expensive vacation abroad or the nice new toy, or would they rather you just get in the bath and play with them? As a general rule, kids want you, not the stuff you give them, and if you really connect with the adults who are important in your life, you’ll find they do, too.
So what can we do to practice and learn these lessons? Here are a few ideas:
- Watch children with the eye of a student rather than a teacher. This is not as odd as it sounds: I recently spent a lot of time with the folk at The Children’s School where parents, staff, and young children are all on first name terms, and where the culture is one that sees everyone as learning from each other. So when you see a child making a mistake, instead of trying to fix it, or trying to teach them how to “do better next time”, realize that there is another way of looking at what happened. Realize that this might be an opportunity; that for the most part nothing will actually go wrong; that living life with the freedom to make mistakes is a wonder and a joy.
- Play like a child. Create time to be with children and to cast off your adult cares and worries. Learn from a child how to do this. Then create time in your life to do this on your own, or with other adults.
- Visit Disneyworld. I don’t mean the adult-oriented experiences and parks, but The Magic Kingdom. For all it is a corny and canned experience, Walt Disney created an environment in which we can all cast off the world in which we live and imagine, create, and be like a child. I know: Disneyworld is expensive. But you don’t really need to go there: you know enough about it to get what I’m saying and look for other opportunities to immerse yourself in this kind of experience elsewhere in life.
- Avoid picking and choosing: Our lives are full of likes and dislikes, whether that be the food we eat, our furniture, or the sports teams we follow. But so long as we have enough to fill our bellies and a warm bed at night, the rest of this “stuff” really doesn’t matter enormously. We need to go through a process of “unlearning” to recognize that, to let go of our up-tightness about our stuff and the record of our team. To accept our place in the world, not from the standpoint of giving up, but rather just not getting caught up on possible outcomes of what we do.
- Meditate: If you are looking for a single thing that will make a difference in your life and allow you to rediscover joy, then start a regular meditation practice. It does not need to be a significant commitment, but it does need to be a commitment. And over time it will result in a natural reduction in picking and choosing, a natural move to playing like a child, a natural openness to learn these lessons. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read last week’s article, Why You Should Meditate.