Life lessons I've learned from small children


From January to August, I spent my days with little kids. An 18-month-old in the mornings, and a five- and nine-year-old in the afternoons. I fed the hungry and clothed the naked. I cleaned and cooked and wiped and packed and unpacked and buckled and ferried. Smiled and cheered and affirmed and encouraged. Entertained, distracted, hugged, held. I loved those kids, and I love them still. And it’s amazing what they, in their simplicity and innocence and childlikeness, were able to teach me, a 28-year-old who likes to think she knows quite a bit, thank you very much. Here’s just a sampling.


Ask for help


Emma, I need you. I need your help. Emma? Emma? Emma? Music to my ears. Of course I’ll help you. What do you need? I’m coming. I’ll be right there. It’s the beat of a motherly heart.


So often I fail to ask for help. I don’t like to admit to others (or myself, or both) that I’m in need. But of course I am. We are made to depend on each other, to belong to each other, to give and receive with great generosity. And while my needs may be more complex and seemingly burdensome (paying off loans before I enter the convent, borrowing a car since I sold mine, searching high and low to find everything on my packing list), I have just as much right as a little child to ask for help, and to expect to receive it. Children know that they are loved, and they trust that their parents will provide for them. I’d like to have that same disposition of heart, to know that I am loved so dearly by others and especially by God, and to trust that He will provide for me.


Feel freely


Caught sight of your beloved bag of chalk in the bottom of your stroller when you arrive at the park? It’s okay to shriek from delight and laugh from excitement and point ardently until it’s handed to you. Accidentally rolled a watermelon down just-mopped steps and watched it smash into a million juicy red pieces? It’s okay to cry and cry from embarrassment and shame, to let yourself be hugged and held and told, It’s okay. You’re not in trouble. Watermelons are replaceable! Finally made it to your bus stop after your substitute bus driver got lost for over an hour in the pouring rain? It’s okay to recount the whole story, and admit that you were so afraid, and ask for a hug, and insist on resting and recovering on the couch when you make it home at last.


Kids are so good at feeling their feelings. To a fault, in fact. They aren’t afraid to laugh or cry or scream for any reason at any time, and it’s always somehow justifiable in their little brains. While I’m surely not advocating that we adults follow suit to that extreme, I’ve been learning from these little ones how to more freely express my emotions. I’ve been smiling wide and laughing easily when surrounded by loving friends, I’ve let my tears flow freely at painful goodbyes, I’ve invited people I trust into my worries and fears. I’d like to always allow myself to feel what I’m feeling, and to express those feelings honestly. With prudence and virtue, of course, but without apology.


Start fresh each day


Yesterday’s sleep-deprived tantrum, fight over Legos, fit of disrespect are a thing of the past. After a good night’s sleep, kids naturally reset and begin the day with a fresh start. As Anne of Green Gables would say, tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it.


This childlike philosophy is one I’d like to embrace, too. We adults are so bent on holding onto grudges, keeping score, setting up expectations, coming down far too hard on ourselves. We agonize over what we said or didn’t say, how we looked, what we failed to accomplish on our to-do list. Kids are quick to forgive and recover, to look over the past mistakes and failures of those around them, to be gentle on themselves. I’d like to assume the best, not just of my family and friends, but of myself; to wake up without the burden of needless regret; to firmly believe that I am known, seen, and loved by an all-merciful, tender, fatherly God who is the ultimate king of fresh starts.


Notice the world around you


I believe that children have the widest eyes. Little Gabriel’s first sentence, if I’m not mistaken, was, What’s that? Even in his own bedroom, where he spent hours a day, he’d point out the fan, the mobile above his crib, the planes hanging on his wall, the sunshine coming through the window. He also took to gasping or letting out a drawn-out Wooow when he saw something that excited him. I’d never spent so much time looking at grass, or leaves, or bugs in the dirt, or cracks in the sidewalk, or crumbs beneath the table, as I did when I was with him. Then there were the afternoons in the park with the older kids, collecting little pinecones and building makeshift treehouses and watching caterpillars inch along. They weren’t glued to screens or determined to rush from place to place or watching the clock as they played. They could just be.


I’m not sure when we lose that quality of wonder and awe at the world around us, but I, for one, would like to get it back. It requires putting down my phone, slowing down, taking walks, looking and listening with intention. Maybe it doesn’t seem so exciting to hear birds chirping or to watch a new home being built or to lock eyes with a fellow pedestrian for a quick smile and hello, but still it matters. The Creator of this world made it for a reason, and woe to me if I do not accept and receive and appreciate it for the gift that it is. I’d like to see with the eyes of a child, full of wonder and delight and surprise at the beautiful world around me.


Your life is not your own


One of my favorite moments of my time as a nanny was returning to the older kids’ house after they’d been abroad for three weeks. I punched in the code and slipped through the garage as I always did, called Hello? up the stairs, and immediately heard happy cries of Emma! Emma! as they raced into my open arms for the sweetest reunion. Our days weren’t always filled with such joy and affection (usually it was more parts disciplining and keeping them alive and breaking up fights) but absence sure does make the heart grow fonder. And as I made my way to the living room, five-year-old Sofie and nine-year-old Mikey curled up on either side of me, taking up about one quarter of the available space on the couch in their spacious home, I could have just burst. For these rambunctious, energetic, loveable kids had made their way into my heart. My life (and personal space) became, in a way, theirs; and theirs mine. I learned their routine and we learned each other and we argued and played and loved one another. Little Gabriel, too, carved a space in my heart that no other can fill. He trusted me and loved me and taught me over and over that my life is not my own.


For all the inconvenience and discomfort and death to self that it takes to care for children, there is no match for the expansiveness of heart and refreshing perspective and arrows to God that come with loving and being loved by them. We belonged to each other, Mikey and Sofie and Gabriel and I, as do we all—all of humanity. We are all growing and changing and mourning and celebrating side by side, our lives inextricably intertwined as we lean on each other and learn from each other and hurt and heal.


Like a child, I am dependent. Like a child, I feel deeply. Like a child, I am filled with wonder and awe. And like a child’s, my life does not, finally, belong to me. May we all grow and learn and become who we are: children in the arms of the Father.


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