Little Teachers

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Somehow we forgot things that babies and toddlers know. But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost those abilities completely. Like everything else we’ve forgotten, they’re in our minds somewhere.  We’ll  never be that cute again, but perhaps we can get some of our childhood qualities back.

I wouldn’t mind having those abilities, to have my needs met and meet others’ needs without effort. I wouldn’t mind greeting the day as our 15 month old charge Linnea does: waking up with a look of sheer delight, bouncing up thrilled that “Wow! The world is still here! I’m so happy to be back! Let’s go have fun!” (I’m paraphrasing, of course. My baby talk is not that fluent. But I’m sure my interpretation is pretty close.)

Since our granddaughter Anaya has brought young children back into my life after a long absence, I almost see toddlers as role models. They are certainly different from most adults in a profound way: they are whole. The ones we take care of don’t seem to spend time doubting themselves or worrying about what they should be doing. They don’t think that much at all. They are 100% present in now.

Many of the positive life paths adults are taught in spiritual traditions, toddlers embrace automatically. We’re often told to “live in the moment.” Well, toddlers have that one down. If you don’t believe me, try to get one to wait five minutes for something.

Just as they refuse to live for the future, they let the past go almost immediately. Yesterday, Anaya was jealously holding on to a doll that she had to give up, because it belonged to another child, Kayla. But once she turned her back and my partner put it into Kayla’s bag, out of sight, Anaya forgot about it in seconds. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Spiritual teachers often tell us to simplify. “Need little; want less,” Lao-Tzu wrote. Toddlers keep their needs simple indeed – food, water, nap, clean diaper, some attention. That’s why they can get their needs met so easily.

Toddlers are explorers. They don’t take anything for granted, because it’s all new to them. They approach objects and interactions without preconceptions. In the same situations, adults often feel we already know the answers, because we think we’ve been there before. More often, the reality is that we’ve learned not to see anything new and different.

Looking at them day after day, without having primary responsibility for them, I am fascinated watching their selves coming on line. Before the age of six months, I’m pretty sure Anaya had no sense of self at all. She responded directly to the world without an ego to get in the way.

Now at 22 months, we’re seeing signs of a developing personality, and in a way it’s sad.  She’s starting to see herself as separate from others and the world. She has learned the difference between “me” and “not me.” Recently, she has learned the idea of “mine” and “not mine,” (although she’s still not clear on it,) and now she is becoming possessive of things that are “hers.”

I don’t know if this is an inevitable result of her growth and development, or if society does it to her. I mean, we keep telling her to be certain ways, that some ways of being are good and others are bad. We taught her mine and not mine before she ever thought of it herself.

I guess you have to learn separateness to get along in society. Things could be hard for a person who just acted spontaneously and from the heart at all times. As I write this, though, I wonder if it’s really true. Maybe I should try acting spontaneously from my heart for a week and see what happens. I’ll call it the toddler challenge.

Another way toddlers remain whole is by not holding emotions. Anaya is happy 98% of the time. How does she do that? She can be happy because when she’s not, she lets everybody know. She’s not embarrassed to break out in sobs or to scream in pain or rage. Then it’s gone, and she’s smiling and playing again. That’s always an interesting lesson for me. Maybe I’d feel happier if I didn’t hide my emotions so well.

Finally, wise people advise us to accept the world and other people as they are. Toddlers usually do that. That behavior surprised me, because we’ve all seen kids’ throwing tantrums when they don’t get their way. In fact, they only do that as long as they think it might work. Kids who know tantrums don’t get them anything seem very accepting of reality. They may say “No” loudly, but the moment they realize it’s not going to change anything, they go back to happiness.

What happened to us?

You might note that all these toddler characteristics are attitudes we lose early in life. Many of us spend years in spiritual seeking or psychotherapy trying to get them back.  What happens to our early wholeness? It gets overwritten by a combination of normal growth, social conditioning, and psychic wounding.

The kids we take care of are lucky. They’re from intact homes with loving parents; they’re not abused; they don’t live in poverty, and most of them are only children. That helps them to stay in the moment, because they don’t have anything serious to worry about. They’ve never had any reason to doubt their place in the center of the world. One episode of trauma or abuse, or having a younger sibling born, or any ongoing deprivation might challenge their “in-love-with-the-world” attitudes.

Even with the most-loved kids, society works to take them out of wholeness. Anyone who lived totally in the moment, all the time, would be considered crazy. They would have to have someone take care of them most of the time. Toddlers have that care, but they won’t always. So we teach them “to delay gratification,” meaning look to the future. Parents teach them all the rules of behavior, all the distinctions they should make. We educate them out of wholeness for their own protection.

Society pushes little ones to hide emotions “Don’t cry.” “Don’t talk like that.”  I guess if everyone expressed emotions at full volume, the world would be a pretty noisy place. It would also be a much happier one, without the smoldering hostility and accumulated grief that most adults carry.

We teach them to have fears about the future, suspicions of other people, and doubts about themselves. Many kids learn that the primary rule of dealing with the world is, “Don’t talk to strangers.” Perhaps some of this is necessary, although I believe that fear of the other is taken to extreme degrees in places like the United States, and it does violence to the way we see the world. How can you feel connected when everyone is a potential danger?

If children are abused or neglected at all, their education in separateness proceeds much faster. Conversely, having caregivers who love them wholly and unconditionally – often a grandparent – may help them maintain some of their wholeness as they grow.

Next page – The Neurology of Wholeness

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4 Responses to Little Teachers

  1. Pat Gray says:

    Thanks for the invitation to come along with you as we seek to be more honest and childlike. It has been very fortunate that you have the children to watch and study without being the person in charge. You position as a spectator may be really good for us who want to go along in seeking a new way of experiencing our lives.

  2. Betsy Bannerman says:

    I don’t really think immersing the adult self back into the inner child would work, except for very short periods of time. Since adults are the caretakers, the adult-turned-child would go missing in action as a caretaker, or even just as someone who needs to be responsible for him/herself. Perhaps the adult-turned-child would need caretaking him/herself from a world that might frown on “immature” behavior. Plus, I think that noticing people’s needs and wanting to fulfill them is part of what makes people interesting. trustworthy and lovable. But I do love children, their freedom, their innocence, their trusting natures, their enthusiasm, the way they “get” the world. Childhood is special and children do need to be safe and loved in order to keep as “whole” as possible. Thanks, David, for giving me something to think about today!

  3. M.A.K. Spero says:

    This is my fifth rewrite. Thanks for spending as much time as you have giving me reasons to live.

    I felt horrible the first time I made Anaya unhappy. In part because my toddler Matty is still unhappy.

    I want to help future generations develop in to loving, engaged adults who can help transform the obsessively LFC world we have helped make for them. It seems re/gaining a positive loving relationship with myself is an important step to being helpful. Especially if helping does not mean trading one hurt (forced value) for another.

    Of course, it takes a village, or at least the resources of a village, to raise such children. Sites like this and the people who appreciate them are that village.


  4. Will Fudeman says:

    Yes, spending time with children (especially if we are free to be with them without major responsible ongoing caretaking roles) provides great gifts to us. I’ve so grateful for all the times I’ve spent with Kenzey, Teo, and Ani- my friends who shared play times with me over the past 12 years.

    Thanks, as always, for noticing, appreciating, and writing.


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