Lessons on Life from a Child

"Its is a great art to saunter "- Henry David Thoreau


I have always found it rather amazing how everyday ordinary activities in life can teach us fundamental lessons about how to live. I had one of these moments many years ago. It was Spring 2016 and much to my chagrin, my car broke down. The result was I had to walk my four-year-old daughter to and from play-school. A walk of about 15 minutes although my daughter had a habit of turning a 15-minute walk into well over 30 minutes. The pace was slowed significantly by her need to pick and give me every flower we passed (at the end of the walk I had about 20 daisies in my pocket, along with a few dandelions). She also thought it was hilarious to go up to every door along the way and knock on it and run, something I was desperately trying to get her to stop. And there was also the matter of the stream we passed in our housing estate, which if we didn’t stop to throw in a few stones, I would have to manage a massive melt-down.

Despite the fun she was clearly having, for me this walk was a major source of frustration. I couldn’t help but think about the things I had to get done that day. It’s not that I expected my daughter to keep an adult pace and to have no fun along the way, but things needed to be done. First, the lunch had to be made, followed by a quick clean of the house and the washing. I needed to do all this before the mechanic arrived, who was coming to fix the aforementioned broken car. Then there would be the matter of dinner, which I wanted to have ready before my wife returned from work, and somewhere in between, I had to find time to do some writing.

Basically, the sooner I got home the better and I didn’t have time stop at every daisy on the way.  However, as I watched my daughter’s obvious delight while she walked along in the Spring sun, I realised that she wasn’t thinking about her lunch when she got home or what she was going to do later, right now, she was walking and that was it.  And because of that, she was able to enjoy the walk for what it was. I watched the delight she had as she came upon another flower, picking it and giving it to me saying “for you daddy”, the cheeky grin she would give me before knocking on another door! And the careful consideration she gave to selecting the right stone to throw into the stream.

I contrasted her experience of the walk with mine and realised that I was frustrated because I was somewhere else.  I was thinking of the day ahead and it was stopping me from being able to enjoy what was in front of me. It reminded me of a quote from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:

“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy - to be a man who is brisk about his food and work.”

So that day, on the walk home from play-school, I decided to try and put what I had to get done out of my mind and to get involved with what my daughter was doing (not the knocking on people’s doors part). I slowed my pace and began to disregard how long it was going to take me to get home and my frustration began to leave me, replaced instead by happiness and delight. As I sat by the stream and helped my daughter to select the stones that she excitedly threw into the stream, I realised just how much fulfilment you can get from an activity that you do for nothing more than its own sake.  It didn’t get me closer to doing what I need to do that day, it wasn’t particularly interesting, but it was the best part of my day.

Children have a lot to teach us about how to live.  They don’t need a reason to be happy, they just are, because they don’t think about time, the next moment, or their own morality like we do.  And they haven’t yet been influenced by societies or the viewpoints of others that tell them what to do, what to think or what to be in order to be happy.  Because of this, children can embrace the moment and do things for their own sake without an agenda.

Now you may say that’s because a child “doesn’t know any better”, but what do you mean by “better”?  Why do we assume we know better because we are older and have experience and know “how things work”? A child may not know why they are happy, how to get it or even what happiness is, but none of that prevents them from being happy: to delight in the mundane and play in all manner of circumstances. Children breath new life and passion into the world. When the colours of the sky have long since lost their beauty, as we go about our busy and important lives, it takes a child, sauntering on a walk to look up and be amazed, renewing that amazement in us. That should teach us something about the true nature of happiness.  We spend most of our adult lives chasing it, but if we just stopped and like a child embraced the moment, it would come to us.  

I am glad that my car broke down that day. I made the decision then and there to walk my daughter to and from play-school more often and to build more routines into my day where I took my time. That doesn’t mean since then I have gone about my life with a Zen Buddhist discipline to mindfulness. I still get busy and find myself running around and feeling like I am getting nothing done, frustrated, stressed and miserable. But, I find when I push myself to go for a walk, on my own or with my family, I bring myself back to that moment my daughter thought me the simplest of lessons about life: take your time, embrace the moment and happiness will come to you.

Mindfulness is a powerful tool in helping people manage their stress and anxiety. If you feel you could use some help in how to build this kind of practise into your life or are struggling with stress and anxiety, please do not hesitate to contact me

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