Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

February 1, 2013

Youthful Wonder: Life Lessons From Children

Filed under: Uncategorized — by Life's Toolbox @ 7:45 pm
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Last week, I was invited to Kansas City, to speak at the Synagogue Dinner for Congregation BIAV (Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner).  The warm welcome I received was impressive, and even more amazing was the choice of honoree(s) for their celebratory event.  While most organizations choose those individuals that have made significant personal or professional contributions.  BIAV chose, instead, no one individual, but a group that will make a huge difference in the future.  They honored at their dinner the youth of their community.  


Thinking about youth, and considering what to say at the dinner, I remembered the best selling poster from years ago – stating in bold letters, “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten”.  While we may not learn everything in kindergarten, nor from children, it occurred to me that there are some very important things we need to know we can learn from children, at every age and every stage.  I am so thankful to the Kansas City community for allowing me to clarify my own thinking about the wisdom of youth, and am happy to share my remarks below.


Whatcan infants teach us?  They are, after all, tiny blobs, unable to do much more than the basic biology of eating and sleeping and other actions not proper for dinner discussion.  Yet, these tiny, seemingly powerless creatures teach us the critical power of a smile.  Researchers have been studying this in developmental laboratories for years, but the people who really understand this are parents.  Tell the truth, how many of you have felt your heart skip a beat when your infant child or grandchild first smiles at you?  And anyone who has been graced with such a smile knows you would do anything to get that smile again!  Adults rewarded with an infant’s smile after doing a funny dance, will dance their feet off – just to get another smile.  Adults who are greeted with an infant’s smile when they fall off a chair, will do endless pratfalls.  And if a song brings a smile to a tiny face – we will sing till we’re hoarse!  Most often, though, what makes infants smile is our smiles.  We smile at them, they smile back, and we smile some more – in a growing cycle of happiness.  What is the lesson here?  What do infants teach us?  That a smile brings more smiles, and that with our good cheer we brighten others’ days, and therefore our own.


What do we learn from toddlers?  In the late 50’s the psychoanalytic writer Greenacre described toddlers as having “a love affair with the world”.   Imagine, living with a world view that consists of carpets, tiles and wood plank, as you crawl through life.  Suddenly you’re upright and the world is transformed into a landscape of sofas, end tables, drawers to open, knobs and buttons to explore . . . and you have every intention of exploring it all.  It is that sense of wonder and curiosity that toddlers teach us.  How would we, and our world be changed, if we woke every day ready to truly explore our world.  To look in the corners and at what is right in front of us with equal amazement.  Recently, visiting my Dad, I was thrilled to see the toddler in him, still strong.  I was showing him pictures on my new, super slim Mac computer and he said “I’d love to open that up and see how they put all the power, memory and brains in between those two thin pieces of metal”.  He has always been a tinkerer, builder and explorer, just like a typical toddler, so you can be sure I didn’t leave my laptop in his reach unsupervised for very long!  So, what toddlers teach us is to look at the world each day with wondrous eyes.


What about school-aged children? Locked in classrooms for a minimum of 8 hours a day, with people not necessarily of their choosing, they work in reading groups, on science fair projects, on color war teams.  They spend more time working with others in a day than many adults spend working together in a month.  School aged children teach us the value of collaboration.  It may take effort and come with struggles, but its’ well worth it.  In our adult years, smarter and wiser, we often believe “it’s just easier to do it myself”.    So many of us, however, have experienced the power of collaboration.  Perhaps you have had the amazing experience, perhaps in a time of great sorrow or need, or I hope, in the hectic days of hosting a simcha, of friends and community coming together to lend a hand.  Whether it was my father in law’s shiva, erev sukkot, or my 2 sons’ weddings 5 weeks apart, my home filled with unasked for but much needed meals, errands were run, sheva brachos (post-wedding blessings) and minyanim (prayer services) happened – all because people collaborated.  It truly is not good for man to be alone, as we are told in Genesis, and school aged children teach us that we can and should work together, with anyone and everyone, when the task at hand requires it.


As a mom who survived having 3 teenage boys in the house at the same time, there were certainly days, weeks and even years when I wondered, what do teenagers teach us?  Teenagers teach us that opposite realities can coexist – that there is value in rebellion and connection – that both doubt and belief can and must live together in us.  Teenagers are walking contradictions.  They want to be independent, their own person.  Yet, they dress in “uniforms” and roam in herds, like pack animals.  They can turn their noses up at tradition and the establishment, only to reveal their intense spirituality and belief in finding purpose in life and making a difference in the world.  They are as passionate as any politician, as devoted as any Rabbi, and as fiercely loyal to their friends as sports fan to their favorite team.  Teenagers teach us to be both cynical and optimistic – with equal fervor.  They teach us that we can have the messiest room in the universe, and still vehemently support a clean environment.  They teach us to be both our own person and tightly connected to our community and group of peers.  To go forth into the world and wander far and wide, but to never forget who we are and where we came from.


The latest data suggests that youth no longer ends with the teen years, and that economic and other realities have created the Odyssey Years, also known as young adulthood.  What do our young adults teach us?  The high school graduates who perhaps head off to study abroad for a year, or pack their bags and move into dorms and apartments, they seem to live in a state of permanent change and movement.  We are constantly updating their addresses in our contact list, trying to keep track of where they are and what they are doing.  Through their endless movement,  young adults teach us that change is ever present, and always possible.  More importantly, as they backpack here and there, collect experiences and friends from far and wide, they teach us that while journeys can take effort, be uncomfortable, and tiresome, and most roads come with at least some bumps, it is not the destination, not where we are that defines us, it’s the travels, the journeys that we take that make us what we are.   


So what is the youthful wisdom I would like to leave you with tonight?  Remember the infant’s lesson and smile – to bring more smiles and joy into others’ worlds and your own.  Weave the toddler’s awe and wonder at the world into your days and like a school child, join your efforts with others and value collaboration.  Be like a teen in your willingness to accept contradiction and to challenge and support ideas with equal passion.  And like a young adult, keep moving, changing and growing, and embrace the sometimes rough road on which we travel that makes us who we are.


Perhaps the greatest wisdom of all, whether we are young or old, is to recognize God’s miraculous hand, in making, in his image these amazing creatures we call children.  Equally wise, is to recognize our sacred responsibility, to be open to the wisdom of youth, and to protect them and their world, so that they can grow as we did, into wise adults, who will forever and always, look at youth with wistful longing but also with awe and wonder. 






  1. Dana,

    I’d like to print and discuss at Shabbos table tonight…love u, Joey

    On Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 11:45 AM, Life’s Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and

    Comment by Joey Small — February 1, 2013 @ 7:47 pm |Reply

  2. Wow!! So inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing. Ilana

    On Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 2:45 PM, Life’s Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and

    Comment by Ilana Turetsky — February 2, 2013 @ 5:36 pm |Reply

  3. Thank you Dr. Novick! Your words are an inspiration so us all. We are so glad you were able to celebrate with us here in Kansas City!

    Comment by Dani Rockoff — February 5, 2013 @ 6:22 pm |Reply

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