Some years ago there was a book that everyone seemed to be giving everyone else at around Christmas, called “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” and its down-home wisdom and whimsical style charmed many. After all, there are many basic understandings about social life that we take in at that tender age, such as to share things, take time for a nap, be nice, and so on, which is about all I retain from the book.
But there may also be another dimension to the lives of very young children that the author missed out. That is, simply put, that the child up to about the age of six can be a true archetypal Innocent, one who can be authentically herself without effort. Of course, any child will soon enough be beguiled into the ways of the world, and learn small duplicities and manipulations, and she will want what others have simply because those things convey status. Yet despite all this, for a wonderful all-too-short time the child will like what she personally likes simply because she likes it, and peer pressure about what’s acceptable is hardly considered at all. When the switch happens and children become fearful of what their peers think then innocence has been, if not lost, at least compromised. It is the qualities of the Innocent that we may want to learn from before they are forced underground. Possibly we may even want to honor those qualities, too.
The Innocent is envied by adults. According to Emerson’s famous comparison, adults cluster around babies and admire them because the child is simply, authentically, being herself, and is not conforming to any social expectations. Meanwhile the rest of us, who have society’s rules to care about, find this almost unbelievably enviable.
If we take this further then we’d have to say that children are, temporarily, allowed something that the rest of us struggle to achieve later in life; a certainty about what we want and need. A child will almost always say what she needs, and expect that someone will do something about it. Of course, sometimes the child will try to manipulate, but that’s a learned skill, and it’s usually learned from adults. The basic pattern of ‘I need and I have the right to ask for, even to expect, decent treatment’ is what I’m talking about here. It presupposes that the child feels she has a right to ask, and that can only come from feeling that she is loveable and loved. If only some of the adults we run across every day had such good self-esteem and could be as charmingly direct! If only some of our professional colleagues with whom we work would do the same thing – and abandon their passive-aggressive silliness! If only I could be as open, myself!
A baby, seen this way, has nearly perfect self-esteem. If it wants comfort and love it makes noises and eventually yells for comfort and love. This is the powerful message the Innocent can teach us: if you want something, ask for it directly; and when you do so, make sure that what you’re asking for actually is concerned with love and comfort – and not some shiney consumer toy. The child is asking the parent to live up to her side of the loving relationship – and when she does, love grows.
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