The Purpose of Childhood

What is the purpose of childhood?

It’s an interesting question and, counterintuitively, one that us parents sometimes forget to ask. Sure, we ask questions centered around our purpose as parents — and those are incredibly important to think about — but the kid-centric question is equally important.

From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings have exceptionally long childhoods.  Most species on Planet Earth accelerate to adulthood within a matter of a few short years (or less), but not so for us humans.

Instead, human children remain children for prolonged periods, dependent upon their loving families to nurture them during the baby, toddler, youth, and adolescent years. Our relationship with our children undergoes a profound metamorphosis several times over the course of two decades. We adjust our parenting to meet the growing needs, and independence, of our children.

But again, what is the purpose of this prolonged childhood? Its very length denotes its importance and, yet, we often feel the temptation to race ahead, to accelerate our kids on the path to adulthood. And certainly, one of our roles as parents is to prepare our kids for adulthood. 

But, in our view, this role requires a patient reverence for childhood and an embrace of its slow pace. We believe the purpose of childhood is to play; to create; to experiment and take risks within reason and without judgment; to let curiosity spark learning; to test the boundaries of our children’s will, hearts, and minds.

These purposeful pieces of childhood, we hope, will allow our kids to grow in confidence, in compassion, and in love. Rather than short-changing childhood, we lean into it, trust it, and cherish its length.

Because, someday, our kids will be adults. The strong roots of their extended childhood will enable them stand upright in the face of life’s storms; to be strong, resilient, and adaptable during life’s unpredictable journey; and to shine and contribute confidently to this beautiful world.

Embracing the Natural Pace of Childhood

For a long stretch, whenever you gave our little boy crayons or colored pencils, he’d busy himself drawing designs. Multi-colored, layered, creative designs.

Meanwhile, if you gave his twin sister crayons or colored pencils, she was likely to draw whatever she saw in the world — a smiling face, clouds, flowers, rainbows.

And then, seemingly overnight, our little boy started drawing rocket ships with intricate details, fire jetting out the back, control panels onboard, a moon in the distance. Faces emerged next for him — smiley faces, silly faces. And yes, he still draws designs too.

Evolving and maturing at his own pace, our little boy is unearthing his own unique mode of artistic expression. We never told him to draw a rocket, and we certainly did not pick the day when he jumped from designs to detailed rocket ships. That was up to him. As it should be.

As parents, we joyfully await these leaps, when we see our children maturing before our eyes, learning new skills, testing new boundaries, seemingly all of the sudden.

But these leaps happen in their own time. They cannot be demanded. For kids, there is no command performance.

We provide the loving environment for our children to grow, but like Mother Nature’s nurturing of a springtime flower, we cannot force this sudden burst of becoming. By holding childhood in reverence, we trust that each child’s journey of self-discovery and consciousness will unfold in its own time.

In Waldorf classrooms, teachers practice “holding the question”— that is, holding off on definitively answering the question: “who is this child?” Rather than labeling individual children as the “smart kid,” the “athlete,” the “mischievous kid,” the “artist,” and so on, Waldorf philosophy counsels its educators against putting kids into a defined box too soon.

As parents, we desperately want to answer this question. We lay awake at night, dreaming about who our children will become, dreaming about our adventures together, dreaming about their role in this world. We can dream, of course, but we must also be patient and flexible in our dreams.

Our children will surprise us in ways we cannot foresee, in ways big and small.

For now, it’s enough that our little boy loves to draw designs and rocket ships. He’ll share his next leap when he’s ready. We’ll be waiting, patiently and lovingly. 

The Spontaneous Joy of Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s perhaps the most quintessential question of childhood. And it’s the question our little boy asked his uncle during a recent family gathering. 

“Sure! What do you want to play?” came the reply.

An expression spread over our little guy’s face, as if to say, “Oh, wow, I have no idea. I hadn’t got that far yet.” After a pause, he said, “Just run around and play!”

And so they did. Our little girl joined in the fun too, as their uncle chased our kids with bursts of laughter ensuing. Evidently, they decided to roam around and mimic the roars of prehistoric animals, including sabertooth cats and woolly mammoths. They loved every second of it.

Watching my kids chase their uncle, it struck me: this joy just happened spontaneously. It was not planned, researched, or analyzed. It just started with a simple decision: let’s play.

Kids don’t feel the need to have all the answers. Life washes over them, and joy flows naturally.

As grownups, we sometimes forget the wisdom of our youth. We fall into the trap of thinking that, for life to be fruitful, we must plan every hour of every day. Our overreaching minds tell us that we must have all the answers before taking the first step.

To a certain degree, we are right. We have to plan for work and home responsibilities. After all, dinner has never prepared itself.

But we can also embrace the wisdom of our children too. There are moments, everyday, when we can simply play, when we can embrace the present without knowing the future, when we can take the first step in a journey without a specific destination in mind.

If only for a few moments, we too can discover the joy and freedom that our children cherish.

Today Is Everyday

Kids don’t mean to be so profound, but they just can’t help it. Their youthful wisdom spills out freely and beautifully.

Yesterday, I picked up our kids from kindergarten and benefited from one of those nuggets of wisdom. Sarah is usually the one to pick up our kids from school, but she’s been working like crazy to plan and prepare for this season's holiday markets.

And so, I had the pleasure of picking up the kids from school. When we change our schedules around, however, we first paint mental pictures of the day-to-day routine for our kids. “Tomorrow, Mommy is going to drop you off at school, where you get to play all morning and eat yummy millet rolls, and then Daddy will pick you up,” and so on and so forth. When they know what to expect, they just seem to digest the day better.

And so, when I picked up our kids from kindergarten yesterday, I launched into one of those mental pictures of what the next few unpredictable days would look like.  I started with, “All right, for tomorrow…” before my little boy stopped me.

He said, “But Daddy, everyday is today.” I stopped myself and smiled.  Yes, it is, little buddy, yes it is.

He is right. We live entirely in the present, but we dwell on the past and plan for the future. As grown-ups, we cannot forget the past or walk blindly into the future. At the same time, however, we must ask ourselves: how much of the present is lost because of worry about what has been and what will be?

For the rest of the day, I tried to embrace my little boy’s mantra of “everyday is today.” I tried to remind myself to be fully present reading stories to our kids and biking around the neighborhood with them.

I allowed myself a glimpse of what it means to be fully present, if only for a few precious moments. Thanks for that gift, buddy.

Sitting in the Shade of Our Crab Apple Tree

If you've taken a peak at the look book for our thermal long johns, you might have spotted a few tree stumps adorned in moss and ferns. Well, those tree stumps now reside in our backyard. Our kids love to jump from stump to stump, precariously teetering upon each before they catch their balance.

When we picked up the stumps awhile back, the woodsmith included a few thinly sliced large wooden rings for our kids to play with. He told us that, in a few months, the wooden rings would dry up, crack, and fall apart.

And so, this past weekend, our little boy accidentally dropped one of his wooden rings, and it cracked into two. He quickly looked up, his eyes full of tears, when I said, “Oh wow!  Look, you made two pieces now!” It somehow worked. Tears dried up quickly and he excitedly told his sister about his good fortune.

So naturally she took her wooden ring and dropped it in the bark. Nothing happened. So she threw it down hard against the bark. Nothing happened.

I was about to tell her to throw it against the concrete, but I stopped myself. Why should I interject? She and her brother were happily playing together, and no one was asking for my help. So I sat back.

And sure enough, she figured out that her wooden ring would break into many pieces when dropped upon the stone steps leading up to our backdoor. For the next thirty minutes, our kids continued to break apart their little wooden rings, counting how many pieces they each had, and just laughing with each other. 

For my part, I rested in the shade of our crab apple tree and just watched them. I marveled at their ability to become so singularly focused on one thing, to lose themselves in an activity with each other, to experience the world without distraction.

Childhood is beautiful and spontaneous. As grown-ups, we organize so much of our lives (oftentimes out of necessity to run our households and businesses), but kids live moment to moment. It’s why they are quick to smile and quick to cry. Their senses and emotions are always engaged.

And I wondered what would’ve happened if I had interjected. Would they have happily played together for the next thirty minutes? I don’t think so. 

As parents, we want to be involved in our kids’ lives. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to step back and let them figure things out for themselves. Kids are natural scientists, experimenting each and every day, testing out their worlds to better understand their environments and each other.

It’s a small thing — breaking apart dry cracking wooden rings — but it allowed our kids to practice problem-solving skills and engage each other. I need to remind myself to step back more often and just watch childhood’s magic unfold.

Because I tell you what…it’s pretty great to sit in the shade of that crab apple tree.