Learning From the Young
A friend who was about to turn 50, knowing that I’m in my late 80s, asked me what advice I might have for a person reaching that milestone. I had to tell him that I thought all such “landmarks” artificial and insignificant, being based on our arbitrary counting in tens, which in turn derives from the happenstance that we have ten fingers. If we had 12 fingers, then I suppose 60 would be the big year.
Nevertheless, not only in our ages do we dignify these decimal divisions. In the game of Cricket, for example, a player who scores 50 runs is said to have hit a half-century. When my father (who was English, and we were living in England) turned 50 – and I was 15 – I made a card showing him as a cricketer, with the caption “VICTOR BRILLIANT SCORES HIS HALF-CENTURY!”
But, in pondering all this, it occurred to me that there was some value in my friend’s inquiry – only he was not going back far enough. The really wise people in our world are the very young – those who have not lived long enough to have their clear vision clouded by experience. Among the lessons they can teach us are these:
COURAGE: Only those who are too young to know better are brave enough to dare disaster, to take what their elders regard as foolhardy risks. They are blissfully ignorant of the fragility of the human body. They don’t know about all the “germs” and other unseen hazards that terrify the educated. As a result, whether in climbing trees or rocks, balancing on roof-beams or railway tracks, sliding on snow or on surf, or, in dozens of other ways, defying the odds (of which they are unaware), they somehow survive – except, of course, when they don’t.
ENTHUSIASM: For some reason, as we “grow up” – and eventually grow down – things start to seem all the same, and lose the appeal of their freshness and novelty. But, to young people, everything is new, and many things are exciting which will never be so again: toys, games, hobbies, crafts. What was it about board games like Monopoly that so captured the young imagination? Why did stamp collecting absorb me so much for several years, then get put away in an album which I’ve hardly ever looked at again?
True, of course, some early interests develop into lifelong passions – but they are the exceptions. In general, it’s only young minds which have the capacity to devour reality, and then, a few years later, stow what they’ve consumed in some remote mental corner.
HAVING FUN: A happy child is a joy to behold. Children find pleasure in very simple things. My mother (who taught me how to tie bows on the back of a chair) used to say that if you wanted to keep me happy, you need only give me a piece of string. But props are hardly necessary at all. Just think what joy little kids derive from laughing and giggling. They have no need of stand-up comedians or sitcoms. To an ordinary child, all of life is a sitcom. There is fun in puppies, in puddles, in paper airplanes. As you get older, you lose or forget all those amusements. You want to be “entertained,” to have pleasures you can buy.
To an ordinary child, all of
life is a sitcom. There is fun
in puppies, in puddles,
in paper airplanes.
CURIOSITY AND WONDER: One of the first things I can remember being told by an uncle whose home I was visiting was “Mustn’t touch!” Children are naturally curious about the world they have only recently entered. They are awed by phenomena like fire, thunder, magnetism. They want to know what things are made of, what’s behind that door, what’s inside that drawer, where things came from (including themselves). They want to know what things feel like, smell like, taste like. It’s too bad so much parental time and ingenuity has to be spent restraining and controlling these impulses, in the interests of “safety.”
LEARNING: But the most meaningful of all the things we can learn from the young is the lesson of learning itself. How do infants learn so much so quickly? How do they so soon learn to be standing, walking, talking, running, reading? How is any young child able to learn any culture’s language – even the most difficult – that he or she happens to be born into?
With all this in mind, turning 50 may not be the big issue. Maybe we should be more worried about turning five!