How Young Children Teach Us To Fully Engage With The World
It has been an extra hot summer here in Boston, so my wife and I have taken every opportunity to bring our 15-month-old son to the beach. Each time we go, he delights in playing in the sand and splashing in the shallow water. In equal measure, he loves greeting all the creatures on the beach: mollusks, seagulls, and other humans. It’s this endless happiness and curiosity about his surroundings that has modeled for me how to engage with the world.
He experiences life in a way that I have unlearned how to experience. From screaming in delight at the trucks driving down the street in front of our house to grinning ear-to-ear while petting the bright yellow flowers in the garden, he wants nothing more than to know, feel, and experience everything that is part of his endlessly fascinating corner of the planet.
When I permit myself to join him in this awe, which takes conscious effort, I'm surprised by how much more at peace I am. Life slows down—pauses, even—and suddenly I’m with him, he’s with me, and together we’re just explorers in the wild. I’m reminded of the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” The idea is that when we will ourselves to experience something as if we’re experiencing it for the first time, then we’re able to become fully present. And as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, this act of being present connects you with the True Nature of Things, the Infinite, God—whatever language makes sense to you.
Children don’t know how to do it any other way. They are naturally attuned to things that, as adults, we either ignore or have forgotten about. Take the story of Samuel, a prophet in the Hebrew Bible, who hears the voice of God when he’s just a boy. He’s being trained by an old, experienced priest, Eli, and yet Samuel is the one to whom God speaks:
So interesting, right? Samuel hears God speaking to him, but he doesn’t realize who it is. It happens a second and then a third time, at which point Eli finally understands what’s happening:
In the Bible, there’s definitely something special about Samuel, both before and after this event occurs. He goes on to become an incredibly important prophet who helps create the nation of Israel. Still, I can’t help thinking that Samuel’s youth has something to do with his ability to hear God speaking to him.
He may not recognize the voice, but he hears it and he follows it.
Perhaps if Samuel were even younger, he would have known right away whose voice he hears. Take the story that Richard Rohr shares during a conversation with Oprah:
Young children are surely in touch with the divine, and this connection enables them to consistently see and appreciate so much that we no longer consistently see and appreciate: trucks, trees, flowers, people, mollusks.
As parents, we can absolutely take a cue from our kids and start noticing these things again—to try and experience them with a beginner’s mind. But I also think it’s our responsibility to consider how we can nurture, and maybe even deepen, this spirituality in our kids. In Matthew 19:14, Jesus puts it like this: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
We have more power to deepen our kids’ spirituality—to help them see and experience the True Nature of Things—than we might realize. In their article “Early Childhood Spirituality in Education: Towards an Understanding of the Distinctive Features of Young Children's Spirituality,” Kate Adams, Rebecca Bull, and Mary-Louise Maynes note that spirituality “is grounded in daily practice and events and that it permeates daily interactions and relationships in addition to being a private, mystical experience.”
We can do a lot to ensure that our young children have a daily spiritual practice by simply being mindful of our routines. Where can we slow things down in our daily activities? What activities can we do with our children each day that allow us to be fully present with them? In what situations or places do we feel most at peace? How can we share this peaceful place with our kids? What does prayer mean to us? How can we teach a child (and perhaps ourselves) to pray in a way that feels authentic?
Adams, Bull, and Maynes also argue that we need to give our kids plenty of time and space for imaginative play, because imagination breeds creativity, and creativity is inherently spiritual. Most of us agree that it’s important to allow young children plenty of time to play, but it’s equally important to give our kids as much playtime as possible as they get older. Western culture tells us they should start being as productive as possible as soon as possible. But for their sake, we need to make sure they hang onto that sense of magic that, as adults, we aspire to.
Our children certainly have a lot to teach, but perhaps no lesson of theirs is more important than showing us what we once knew intuitively: we live in a beautiful world, and God is all around us.