Lessons from the toddlers in my life

We were on our annual family holiday a few years ago, staying in a beautiful old farmhouse on the Northumberland coast. Our bedroom was on the top floor and, as we lay in bed, we could look out on the North Sea just a few hundred yards away. One morning I remember our little grandson, two years old at the time, tiptoeing into our room. It was perhaps 5 o’clock and far too early to contemplate entertaining a toddler. But he didn’t jump into bed with us as we expected; on this occasion he simply walked over to the window, pulled the curtains apart a little and just stood there. For ages. Then, after a while, we heard a little voice cry out, “What’s that yellow thing happening in the sky?” The “yellow thing” was the sunrise and he was witnessing dawn for the very first time.

The greatest teachers in my life over the last few years have all been three feet tall and love Peppa Pig. They are the toddlers in my life. To underestimate them is to miss some valuable lessons. These little people have access to some profound wisdom and I’m going to share some of it with you now.

1.    A sense of wonder. We forget that there was a time when we experienced everything for the very first time. Little children are literally doing that. For them the world is completely new and their responses to it are suffused with wonder and excitement. It’s genuine beginner’s mind. My little grandson didn’t analyse the sunrise or seek to explain it; all that mattered was the sheer magic of it. So try to recapture this sense of wonder, of the strangeness and miraculous nature of the world. Just enjoy it, even if only for a moment. It’s actually quite simple. You just stop, look and drop your judgements.

2.    Acceptance. Ever been to the zoo with a toddler and, despite the distractions available, the animals, the displays, the toys in the shop, all she wants to do is play with gravel on the path?  And have you felt impatient and puzzled by that? No need. Toddlers do this sort of thing all the time. They are exercising their curiosity and are having a good time but on their own terms. Just because you think there is something much more interesting to do is beside the point. So you’re getting bored and irritated?  Relax, let them do their own thing and accept it. Believe me, toddlers will provide you with unlimited opportunities for acceptance.

3.    Noticing. As we grow up we tend to filter out a lot of our experience. Anything that isn’t directly concerned with the task at hand or the goal we want to achieve, even if it’s only as mundane as getting to the supermarket in time, tends to be ignored. This is what we call automatic pilot or living in a trance. Mindfulness is concerned with bringing us out of the trance and more in touch with all of our experience. Children, however, are very, very good at noticing the world about them. In fact they are much better at it than adults.  Observe a child as she interacts with the world. Don’t you wish you could, occasionally, be like that? We can, but we need to remember. See that ladybird crawling up the nettle stem? Stop and pay attention to it for a minute. Seriously, have you really got something so much more important to concern yourself with right now?

4.    Loving unconditionally. At some stage in our lives, I don’t know when exactly, our relationships become much more transactional. “I’ll be your friend if you’ll be my friend back.” The toddlers in my life have loved me and I have loved them. It is completely unconditional and natural. Sure, there are tantrums and mischief, but that is just part of the deal. Toddlers can teach you a lot about love. Perhaps it’s most beautifully expressed in this poem by Derek Tasker. It’s a favourite on our courses but we never tire of it.

5.    Playfulness. As someone who takes life far too seriously, it’s great that I’m reminded from time to time to lighten up. For a little child, everything is play; for many adults, nothing is. It’s wonderful the way a child can transform the grass on the roadside into a jungle or a clothes peg into a spaceship. Play is all about liberating the imagination and our innate creativity. You know what I’ve started doing recently? Drawing! Never drawn in my life. But you know what? It’s fun. Am I any good at it? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to my grandchildren either. Everything they do is just for the joy of it and I’m grateful to them for reminding me.

So there you have it. I'm not suggesting that we behave like toddlers. And I think we should remember that living for the moment is a different thing from living in the moment. The former can be selfish and just plain infuriating for everyone else while the latter is an expression of genuine aliveness. And I would suggest that we have never been more alive than when we were very, very young.

Enjoy the summer everyone. Don't forget to go out and play!