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What kids can teach us

Published November 07. 2009 09:00AM

A few weeks back Parade magazine ran a short piece about what kids can teach us about eating.

According to the magazine, kids never eat when they are not hungry. They fidget, push food around the plate, or just sit there until the food is taken away. But they don't eat if they are not hungry.

Adults on the other hand, eat for other reasons other than hunger. Or so we are told. I guess I can believe that because long ago, when I still could afford bad habits, every time I was really angry or upset I boiled myself some spaghetti. My family used to call it my "upset spaghetti."

I'm not so sure most kids are experts when it comes to food. Many of them eat rather restricted diets - peanut butter and jelly, hot dogs, chicken fingers or Happy Meals from McDonalds are mainstays.

But I've often thought that it's worthwhile studying children because they can teach us essential things we forget when we become "grown ups."

These are some of the lessons we can learn from kids.

1. How to play.

Even when they are not actively engaged in what we call "play," kids make a game out of everything. For instance, when I was visiting my granddaughter in Colorado, I decided to walk with her to the store, completely underestimating how far we had to walk. Instead of complaining, she turned it into a game.

"See if you can walk the same pace without walking on a crack," she said. Walk on a crack and the other one got a point.

Then, of course, came story telling, prompted by her question: "Did you walk much when you were a kid?" That's when we uproot stories about walking to school through snow up to our knees. (For a short kid, that doesn't take much snow.)

The offshoot: The long walk was one of the best times I had on the trip, thanks to a child's ability to turn anything into fun.

Think back. How old were you when you stopped playing?

I'm sure we will all answer that question differently. One friend told me she stopped playing in seventh grade when she "grew up and stopped running around and climbing trees."

I did an informal survey, asking people at what age they stopped playing. Most said grade school. The more responsibilities we take on, the faster we leave the world of play. But we don't have to leave Never Land forever.

We can learn from children and regain our sense of play, especially after retirement when we have time for leisure.

Kids are always trying new things. Why do we ever stop? And if we do, why can't we start again?

Some readers write to me and say they always wanted to kayak but never did. It's never too late.

It's never too late to try new adventures, learn new skills or rekindle the sense of adventure we sometimes lose when we "grow up."

2. The second important thing we can learn from kids is how to find new pals. Two kids who don't know each other soon join in mutual activities after one of them utters just two words: Wanna play?

My granddaughter Sophie is shy so I thought she would have a hard time making friends. But I watched her in a swimming pool where she didn't know anyone. At first, she smiled shyly at another little girl. Then she asked if she wanted to play. When it was time to go home, neither child wanted to be separated and was making plans to see each other at the pool the next day.

Presto. A friend was made. As we age, we stop reaching out to others so our circle of friendship grows smaller and smaller.

Why not take a tip from kids - call someone and suggest getting together for an activity. It sure beats staying home alone.

3. There's an important lesson we can learn from children still too young to talk. That lesson is how to look at the world with awe.

Watch a little baby looking with wide eyes, watching the way the breeze stirs the trees. A baby focuses on his or her surroundings, looking intently at every little thing.

When we grow older, we stop seeing. We stop gazing in wonder. We no longer lie on our back just to watch the pattern of clouds.

Why not? Why not take time to focus on the tiny wonders that make up this magnificent world?

4. A young child can teach us how good it feels to greet everyone with a smile.

I was waiting in line at a supermarket and a young boy in a car seat in front of me kept smiling at me. So, of course, I kept smiling back. I left the store in a good mood, mimicking the little boy by smiling at others.

When we are older, many forget how good it feels to smile. Watching a young child can re-teach us how.

5. Children can also teach us how to giggle. When Sophie trips while jumping rope, she giggles. How many of us giggle when we make a mistake?

6. Children can teach us how to have fun doing strange stuff. Youngsters jump in puddles, run in the rain, play in the dirt and come up with bizarre activities, all in the name of fun.

When we're older, we lose that sense of adventure. But it doesn't have to stay lost.

Sure, we adults have plenty to teach children.

And they have plenty to teach us, as well.

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