When we think about the characteristics of a child, the words that come to mind are qualities like curiosity, honesty, trust, acceptance, resilience, vulnerability and forgiveness. These are also terms we associate with the perfect romantic partnership, yet, for some reason few of us carry those childlike qualities into our "adult relationships." Perhaps it's for fear of appearing immature, or maybe because someone told us we needed to "put aside our childish ways," but I think that is a huge mistake! My study of the "Zen of the toddler" began about 12 years ago when my then 3-year-old son interjected himself into a raging argument between myself and my spouse, and delivered a statement that would not only stop the fighting, but wound up saving our marriage: "Daddy, are we going to make Mommy cry again today?" After a moment like that, you tend to pay more attention to what you are teaching your child about healthy relationships, and you also start to pay more attention to what those mini-love gurus can teach you! Here is a list of honest, real talk from our kids — talk that might just teach us something.
Honesty: Out of the mouths of babes We may not always like it, but honesty is something that kids are candidly brilliant at. Nevermind that you just spent a month at the gym and paid $300 dollars for that amazing red dress to wear at your high school reunion. Your kid is not going to let you walk out the door without you knowing that you really look like a giant tomato. As adults, we adopt the attitude that speaking frankly is impolite, so we allow our relationships to be sabotaged by not telling each other what we really need or want, or what habits drive us crazy. We're so bent on using our manners that we forget to be genuine with one another. Resilience: "Spin me again!"
You know it as the whirling, dizzying, unstable ring of death. To your kiddos, it's just the merry go 'round! And each time you accompany them to the park, you are dragged against your will towards that volatile contraption. You get nauseous just watching them on the thing. However, it delights them no matter how many times they fly off, hit their heads or puke on your shoe. Bubbly laughter is intermittently woven in between screams for more spinning. Resilience is the imitable force that keeps them going. When you think about what our children are willing to tolerate and return to just because the joy is more valuable than the bumps in the road, it makes us look pretty silly when we choose the fight over the belly laugh.
Joy: "Just play with me!" Laughter, joy, cooperation, winning and losing with grace, teamwork and connectivity... these are all words related to play. Yet as adults, we put aside childish things like playing, and for what? In the words of my nine-year-old son, "That's just dumb!" Why is it dumb? Because play brings us closer. It allows us to let our hair down and just laugh; to be free, goofy and happy. And among couples, it encourages trying new things and growth in intimacy through learning! So get dirty and go play!
Communication: "Use your words." When a child is having a meltdown, throwing a temper tantrum or clams up, what do we do? We encourage them to use their words and to practice respectful communication. We tell them to talk to others about how they feel, what they need and what they expect. And yet, that's certainly not what I'm thinking about in the heat of a marital squabble. I'm half-tempted to heave a meatloaf across the kitchen to let my hubs know I'm not happy. Or else go with the ever-helpful "if you don't know, then I'm not going to tell you" tactic instead of saying what I really need or how I feel. I'm convinced that the divorce rate would be cut in half if adults just learned to "use their words."
Vulnerability: Nobody likes a know-it-all If you've ever had a sick child, you know the epitome of vulnerability. 27 calls to the doctor at 3 in the morning just to find an answer. Kneeling next to a vomiting child's bed and praying to God, even though you haven't prayed since Sunday school, that he would give you the sickness instead. Hours on the internet trying to look up home remedies. Finally, in the ultimate act of human sacrifice, making that call to your Mother-in-Law and saying the words, "I have no idea what to do." That's vulnerability! Too many fights start because no one can admit they're wrong, or that they don't know the answer. And every one of them would end just as quickly if we simply learned to say, "I need help" or "I was wrong." We learn from our mistakes, but first we have to allow ourselves to make them.
Present In The Moment: "Watch me! Watch this! Come here!" All of the above are usually code for something my kid is about to do that makes me wince or whine, but the excitement and gigantic smile across his face keeps me from protesting. Kids are pretty proud of the smallest things they accomplish as they grow, and they want to share the joy. They want us to witness life with them, and it doesn't count if we were looking at our phone or answering an email when they did it. The momentary annoyance at being pulled away from grown up stuff is quickly replaced by the heartswell of seeing a new experience through their eyes, in that moment. All any of us really want is to be acknowledged and appreciated, and that can’t happen if we are mentally or physically somewhere else. Our presence is the ultimate demonstration of love.
Curiosity: "Why? Why? Why?" Our initial reaction may be: OMG! Seriously? Do you really need to ask so many questions? Curiosity is probably the most simultaneously endearing and infuriating quality of childhood. It's the ability to watch ant hills for hours and hours and continuously and endlessly ask silly questions like "why is the sky blue?" or "why do we poop?" Why? Why? Why? Usually the questions keep up for a much longer time than most adults are patient enough to keep answering. But imagine for a moment allowing yourself to be that open and that free from the definitive, that eager to understand the world around you. I admit to catching a glimpse of a rainbow and allowing myself to think about the scientific makeup of the spectrum instead of just letting my mind wander into the simple beauty of it and daydreaming about what I would do with the pot of gold at the end.
Cooperation: "Play nice!" You've all been there: driving in traffic and some jerk cuts you off; you stifle expletives as best you can. From the back seat drifts a small voice: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all." You roll your eyes so high, it looks like you're seizing, but you also know your kid is right. We tell our children to be nice to each other to promote cooperation and community, but as soon as we grow up, we act like savages to each other. We stop sharing, we stop acting with civility and we don't follow the Golden Rule... and then we wonder why there's so much anger in the world. It's time to practice what we preach to our kids; to expect the same kind interactions between ourselves as we expect from 2-year-olds. We need to re-learn how to play nice!
Humility: "Say You're Sorry!" Did you ever notice how easy it is to ask our kids to say sorry when anything goes wrong? Or how, when we screw up as parents, we simply expect to ask our child for forgiveness and just receive it? Yet when we grow up we hold grudges, we give the silent treatment or we plot revenge over the smallest things. Kids, on the other hand, have it mastered! Somebody gets dirt on their ice cream cone and they cry for a second. Then the culprit says "sorry," and it's done. Just like that, they are moving right along. Sure, kids remember the traumatic things just like anyone else, but generally, they are too busy loving life and finding the wonder in every amazing thing and person around them to stress over the dumb stuff.
I'll close with a biblical quote: "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." I believe when we embrace the spirit, honesty and playfulness of a child, we are the happiest on Earth. Adults spend so much time focusing on the definitive nature of things: consequences, cause and effect, getting ahead, being stronger, smarter and better. Kids don't feel this way. To them, everything is boundless, everyone is amazing just the way they, are and love has no conditions. If we could humble ourselves in our relationships, have faith in ourselves and faith in our partners, just as children do, imagine how much greater our lives, relationships and marriages could be!