I have forgotten the delights of growing up. I’m generally not nostalgic; I have no desire to see people with whom I went to school, or visit old neighbourhoods. I did that once and found it a grave mistake. When I think about all the years behind me, I shudder and say, ‘thank God that’s done!’
Then I look at my neighbour’s daughter, and I am reminded of some of the charming characteristics of the very early years. She’s ten years old. We spend time together each day after school, and I watch her transform, sometimes too quickly, from child to teen. Sometimes I wish I could be more like she is.
There’s a real joy to being a child; your head is full of ideas; there are things you want to do, places you want to explore, friends you want to see to-day. The days are full of adventure and discovery. There is a refreshing absence of inhibition that allows my little friend to dance interpretively to every single ringtone on my mobile telephone. The tiny ‘witching voice’ of mischief prompts the spontaneous composing of a song she calls ‘Dancing with the Boogie Man’. It isn’t until the very last chorus that you understand that the Boogie Man is not a minion of the Devil, but a man who boogie dances.
It will be a loss to the world when that little girl grows up, and I wish I could make her stay. It is difficult, though, because the word a child should hear the most often is ‘yes’, but the word a child does hear most often is ‘no!’ No, you have an upset stomach; you can’t eat chili and ice cream. No, you can’t ride your bicycle on the roof. No, you can’t shake a bottle of champagne and watch the cork pop from an inch away. Being told ‘no’ urges a child to grow, leaving behind much of what we want to preserve and protect, until she can make choices without us.
They go to school to learn (because they have to—it isn’t likely they would have chosen it for themselves). They learn what the teacher tells them, taking her lessons as gospel, even when she’s wrong. You cannot unseat a child’s confidence in her teacher!
A blessed compensation for school (from the child’s point of view) is that they make friends with other children, but then, most of the time that they spend together, they aren’t allowed to play because they have to be in class. Conflict after conflict between desire and rule, with no control over anything, always hearing ‘no’, rarely being right—sometimes they are even taught what to think, because it’s faster than letting them work it out for themselves. I think it is very hard. I’m sure there’s an alternative, but I can’t imagine what alternative modern Adults would find acceptable.
In essence, a child is born as a beautiful, natural, blossoming plant, which we clip, shape, make grow the way we like, and maybe even jam into a pot. ‘This child will be what we want it to be!’ That doesn’t work very well, does it? As we teach children to be more self-sufficient and capable, they become self-sufficient and capable in ways we do not like. They are defiant because they want to exercise the freedom with which they were born. Suitably squashed, disciplined, restrained, repressed, shaped and sculpted, a single child can guarantee long-term employment to a whole herd of therapists!
The Buddhists refer to ‘the Original Face’; the Taoists talk about ‘P’u—the Uncarved Block.’ This was our natural state when we were born, before experiences—good and bad—began to shape us, mould us, pressing us into conformity. That fresh and original nature is what we seem to treasure most in children, while at the same time doing our best to stamp it out. A certain amount of shaping is necessary for the safety of the child, and we are adamant that people ‘fit in’ in our societies—individuality is praised and deplored in almost the same breath. It is good for a child to learn to read—think of the poetry and literature s/he would miss otherwise. A child should develop a good vocabulary, so as to better and more richly express her own ideas. It is unnecessary for a child to learn to sing, because she already sings songs like ‘Dancing with the Boogie Man’, and gives healthy expression to that ‘witching voice’ of mischief which delights us.
I wonder what we adults are missing. While we are teaching children to be industrious, are we missing the lesson they want us to learn—to play? As we tell them not to talk to strangers, are they telling us to be less distrustful? ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’ What can we learn from them—why must they only learn from us? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to be as unfettered as children?
William Wordsworth wrote, ‘the Child is father of the Man’.
Honour your father.
Paul TN Chapman
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