It’s a reasonable thing to shudder when one hears folk songs encouraging us to learn from children.  My children do things like giving themselves rug burns sliding down the stairs on their stomachs and trying to stick their fingers up my nose:  not behaviour I’m keen on emulating.  Nonetheless, when I was at the playground with my children last weekend, I couldn’t help noticing that all the children are seemed to be having a terrific time, while most of the adults sat huddled over their take-out coffee like disengaged lumps.

Hmm.  If you’ve read the great book Influencer, you will have heard the value of looking for positive deviance, that is, studying the behaviours of those who seem to have managed to solve a problem that the rest of us are grappling with.  If we can nail what these successful people are doing that we’re not, then we can mimic that specific behaviour and hopefully solve the problem for ourselves too.  I don’t particularly romanticize childhood, but I think it’s reasonable to say that most kids are exquisitely alive, with enviable amounts of curiosity, energy and creativity.  Therefore, I sat down and came up with an ad hoc list of where we adults tend to go wrong, and where children’s positive deviances (deviations?) could set us on a different, more switched-on, path:

  1. Adults confuse pleasure with fun.  Pleasure’s lovely (you’re not going to hear me disparage the pleasures of a hot bath or a Barolo), and children surely like it too (look at the rapture of a child eating a Häagn-Dazs bar), but fun both demands and gives more to us.  Children are more willing to commit to fun:  they’ll plan it, anticipate it, invent it…in an odd sort of way they work at it.  I think we can learn from their commitment.
  2. Adults focus more on other peoples’ fun.  This seems to be an odd, and historically quite new, phenomenon.  The psychoanalyst and writer Martha Wolfenstein proclaimed the rise of a “fun morality” as early as the 1950s:  one of its features, she said, was that parents were supposed to make things fun for their children, and to demonstrate at every possible turn that life was enjoyable.  I think it’s actually pretty nice to foster fun for other people, but we have to find our own too.  If you’ve ever watched children negotiate the rules of an invented or make-believe game, you’ll notice that they’re skilled at figuring out what will work for everyone (probably because if not, tantrums ensue).  This seems to be a pretty smart strategy, certainly a lot better than perpetual self-sacrifice.
  3. Adults stop moving.  Humans are meant to move, something we know from pretty much every scientific study ever conducted on the subject and from the feeling of well-being that it generates in our own bodies.  But there’s no doubt that adults just don’t move that much.  Children are a marvel to watch:  they move constantly.
  4. Adults become suspicious of fun.  Too many adults view fun as something that’s going to distract them from more noble pursuits, like work or any one of the gazillions of ways we strive for self-improvement.  Unless we adults mess up our kids, children don’t strive for self-improvement per se, they just trust they’ll learn as they grow.  This means they take fun at face-value, and enthusiastically embrace it.
  5. Adults eat the apple of self-consciousness.  Switching-on and having fun takes risks…we have to move out of our comfort zones and this means that we might look silly, or God forbid, incompetent.  Some children do fret about this, but most plunge into things with little worry about how things will “look”.  This gives them an enormous freedom to experiment and just be.
  6. Adults think we need to have things to have fun.  OK, in our materialistic world, so do a shocking number of children, but they’re likelier to get over it faster.  It’s like the old line, “I gave my kid a $150 mega-present and all she wanted to do is play with the box.”  Children have an extraordinary capacity to invent and create with what they’ve got:  they don’t sit around constructing barriers between themselves and fun by saying, “Well, if I could afford skis and a chalet, I’d have a lot of fun skiing,” or “If I had a sports car, I’d have a blast.”  Not a bit of it.  They figure out how to have fun with what they’ve got because they have to.
  7. Adults perceive ourselves to be too busy to have fun.  Sorry, but I think this time is another false barrier to fun and switching-on, and this comes from someone who gets what seventy hour workweeks are like.  Children definitely get more discreet playtime than we do, but the positive deviance isn’t in those divinely long stretches where they’re engaged in involved play:  it’s in the way that they find mini-pockets of fun or play throughout the day.  Kids can play getting ready to get out the door, putting their clothes away and brushing their teeth.  Of course, this is exactly the behaviour that drives many a well-meaning parent crazy, but the truth is that we could learn from their example.  Confession:  I’m terrible at this.  It doesn’t come naturally to me at all, as much because I don’t feel I have the “bandwidth” as much as the time.  And yet, that times that I’ve seized moments in the midst of routine have not only created uplifting joy – they’ve provided lasting memories.  For example, one of my favourite memories from when Mira was small is when – for some reason I now don’t recall – I decided I had to introduce her to Split Enz at 7:45 on a Thursday morning.  She and I danced to I See Red and Six Months in a Leaky Boat, among other terrific songs, until we were breathless.  She had no idea why we’d varied our routine, and truth to tell, neither had I.  But those fifteen minutes of fun were exquisite and memorable.
  8. We don’t explore enough.  Most adults like capital “E” exploring, like visiting new cities or checking out open houses and such, but we’re not so great at small “e” exploring, such as looking for interesting things in our own backyards, neighbourhoods and other familiar spots like local libraries.  Unless we’re committed fantasy readers, we also don’t really think about exploring different “realms”, from Middle Earth to ancient Greece to Hogwarts.  But children love exploring both intimately familiar and wildly imaginative new realms, and watching them, one sees how it fires their imagination.
  9. We don’t play enough.  Kids are great at play:  adults are frankly terrible at it.  But organizations like the National Institute for Play, the Institute of Play and The Strong Institute for the study and exploration of play are doing cutting-edge research and on-the-ground work that indicates that adults need play just as much as children do, and for all the same reasons:  it facilitates learning and creativity; it literally seems to keep the brain flexible and adaptive; it helps to build social bonds and so on.  Play is also (usually) a big source of fun.
  10. We don’t go outside enough.  Children are naturally drawn to being outside, and most schools or parents still make children go outside every day, or at least close to it.  Barring the occasional tears when it’s just too hot/cold/waspy, children inevitably come in with shining eyes, flushed cheeks and a happier, more focused energy.  Adults, on the other hand, can easily have whole weeks when we’re only outside walking from house to car.  That’s pretty say.  Go outside:  switch-on.
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