Lessons From Little Children

One of the great joys in my life is spending time with my two year-old granddaughter. Whenever I am around her, I just can’t help but to have my spirits lifted and my burdens lightened.  What is it about little children that makes spending time with them so rejuvenating and rewarding?

Jesus mentions little children in another of his counterintuitive teachings. In a spirit of joy, he prayed to the Father saying,

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” [Luke 10:21]

Jesus says that little children can see what the wise and learned cannot. What are ‘these things’ of which he speaks? What are we to learn from little children?

First and foremost, little children are at the very beginning of life as we experience it. As new arrivals to our planet, they essentially know nothing about life on earth. Socrates observed,

“The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.”

‘Knowing nothing’ is just another way of saying open-mindedness. Little children come into the world with no preconceived ideas about the nature of reality. Thus they are open to developing a fresh new perspective on the world. Whereas adults carry the constraints of a learned perception that has the effect of making us more dead set in our ways. Therefore, adults need to undergo a change of mind. Jesus was alluding to this when he attempted to teach the rabbi Nicodemus about the concept of being ‘born again’. Jesus told him,

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” [John 3:3] 

In other words, Jesus was telling him that his state of mind needed to become like that of a little child. Jesus’s exhortation to abandon preconceived notions about what is true or false is similar to Socrates’s characterization of ‘knowing nothing’ as being ‘the only true wisdom.’ According to both Jesus and Socrates, little children are truly wiser than the ‘wise and learned’ of the world.

This idea of little children as wise flies in the face of everything we think we know. We are in the habit of viewing little children as the most vulnerable members of society and as requiring adult protection. As they grow, we educate them so they can become independent, responsible adults. We expect that when they know things, they will be able to make the world a better place . In essence, we are trying to save our little children from the wisdom of ‘knowing nothing’. This seems paradoxical.

Clearly both Socrates and Jesus had a very different vision of the world than we now do. How could they think that ‘knowing nothing’ or adopting the mindset of a little child is the key to seeing the world as it is?  Perhaps we can clarify the value of ‘knowing nothing’ by looking more closely at early childhood.

Infants are the very definition of knowing nothing.  They are completely dependent. Newborn babies do not perceive themselves as separate entities. They view their mothers as part of themselves. Infants are completely dependent on them for survival, much like an organ is completely dependent on the organism. In fact, most scientific research on infants indicates that small children do not develop a full sense of self-awareness, a separate sense of self, until somewhere between 15 and 24 months of age. 

Unlike infants, we see ourselves as capable and independent. How would it be more beneficial to see ourselves as dependent instead? And who would we depend upon? Jesus taught,

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself, he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. “ [John 5:19-20]

This is how Jesus became a miracle worker; he listened to and learned from his Father. His wisdom and power came from recognizing that he knew nothing, and from depending on his Father to teach him everything. 

Anyone who has cared for small children is all too familiar with another manifestation of their lack of knowledge: fearlessness. Young children have not yet learned to fear things that older children and adults do automatically. I recently did some exterior home repairs at my daughter’s house, standing about eight feet above ground level on a large step ladder. After I finished, I went back to my truck to put my tools away. I then looked back toward the ladder. Guess who had already climbed halfway up? That fearless two year-old granddaughter of mine! She has not yet learned to fear falling off the ladder and getting hurt.

Adults tend to fear unfamiliar situations; little children do not. Adults often hesitate to try new things out of fear of failure. As we learn more fear, we tend to judge what is and isn’t possible. But in the absence of fear, all things are possible in the mind of a child. They may appear to be fragile and limited on the outside but inside they are totally unaware of their limitations. Even though outwardly we appear stronger than small children, we suffer far more from our own inwardly-imposed limitations.

Learned fear is perhaps the greatest of all human tragedies. It interferes with our ability to experience love in all its fullness. The apostle John wrote,

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” [1 John 4:16, 18]

Where there is no fear, as in a little child, only love remains. Perhaps one reason why being around little children is so enjoyable is that they exude the perfect love of God. We literally see God in the simplicity and innocence of a small child.

Yet another form of childlike ‘knowing nothing’ is having absolutely no concept of time. Ask any parent who is raising or has raised small children; time means nothing to a toddler! By contrast, adults are governed by time, with responsibilities to fulfill, schedules to keep, and future plans to make. 

How does having no concept of time demonstrate the wisdom of little children? Little children live in the present moment. Whereas time places limits on adults, a little child does not experience these constraints except when they are imposed upon him. Thus a little child has far more freedom than any adult. Little children also use time differently; they spend a great deal more time resting. You might say that they use time in a timeless manner. Unlike adults, they do not feel the artificial pressure to be constantly on the go. Little children are free from the limits of time that contribute so substantially to the high levels of anxiety and stress in the adult world. 

Jesus taught his listeners that there is a way to escape from the tyranny of time, saying, 

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11: 28-30] 

In essence, Jesus is saying, ‘I will teach you how to use time in a timeless way in order to free you from the burdens that currently wear you down.’ Once again, we see that the key to better managing our lives is to recapture the simplicity and freedom characteristic of early childhood.

What are we to conclude? Ironically, we adults need to become more like little children rather than teaching little children to become more like adults. Jesus encouraged his followers by saying,

 “Therefore whoever takes the lowly position of this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven…. If anyone causes one of these little ones … to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come.” [Matthew 18:4,6-7] 

The childlike in their ‘lowly position’ are free from learned misperceptions.  Jesus warns his listeners not to teach perceptions that cause the childlike to lose their state of open-mindedness. Doing so would ultimately bring harm to ourselves and our world. Instead, we need to change our perception of the world to a more childlike view.

I am not advocating a return to the lack of responsibility characteristic of childhood. The emphasis here is on nurturing childlike open-mindedness. Humanity has faced seemingly unsolvable problems throughout its history. To address them, we need to be open to ideas that on the surface may seem anywhere from counterintuitive to outrageous. A friend once told me,

‘The difference between the masters and the masses is the masters recognize how much they don’t know.’ 

Certainly Jesus and Socrates were considered masters.

Little children are born open-minded, fearless, aware of their dependence, and free from the constraints of time. We have much to learn from them. But there is more. Childlike defenselessness, while obvious, may be their most profound quality of all. That will be the subject of the next post. Stay tuned!

“An honest man is always a child.”  –  Socrates

“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” – Jesus