The first principle of toddlerdom is to stay local. We rarely walk further than half a mile before someone’s “legs are tired” and he must be carried. The second principle of toddlerdom is repetition. If something is fun or interesting once, it will remain so in perpetuity. As I retrieve the lost ball or frisbee for the thousandth time, I often feel like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill. And finally, the chief end of every toddler is sensory enjoyment. Give anything to my two-year-old and it will be poured, smeared, thrown, smushed, or eaten.
I knew these principles before March, but the spring’s strict quarantine transformed me into a primary playmate for my toddler sons and immersed me in their world. Without preschool or neighborhood playdates, my children required my time and attention in a way that tested my imagination (and, of course, my patience).
These dynamics can be maddening, but they can also be inspiring. I have grown accustomed to the sensation of running water on my hands, the feel of a soft blanket, the taste of chocolate. But my children delight in these ordinary realities. Their lifestyle might seem small from an adult’s perspective, even boring. But their ability to embrace the quotidian pleasures of embodiment can be downright convicting. Their little lives are a sermon about the primacy of the body and the sacredness of the present moment.
Thou Shalt Be Productive
In Western culture, the abandonment of childhood wonder has become a rite of passage. We all learn to trade play for productivity, to be busy and efficient with our time. These are the criteria by which we evaluate our worth and usefulness. In our achievement-driven society we are taught to privilege that which can be commodified or transacted and to value something not for its own sake, but for how it can be leveraged or consumed.
I want my children to wash their hands efficiently. We only run the water long enough to get clean. My children disagree with this approach. They care little for efficiency or outcome, preferring to devote themselves—and our bathroom floor—to the water itself.
I do not think the solution is to let them perpetually soak the bathroom with faucet water. Adult sensibilities have some merit. But a child’s capacity for enjoyment reveals something important about what it means to be human.
Let There Be
In what is often called the “creation mandate” of Genesis 1:28, God tells the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This divine blessing explains and informs our desire to cultivate the world around us. We have agency to co-create, to maximize and manage the raw materials God has given us. I have running water today because of God’s image bearers, people who imagined better and more efficient ways to bring water into homes. And I steward our use of running water by teaching my sons not to waste it.
But my sons teach me that water is not merely a resource to be managed and maximized. Their ability to enjoy the stuff of this world for its own sake reminds me that creation is first and foremost a gift to be received. When we reduce anything to a commodity, we demean it. In the beginning, God said, “Let there be,” and it was good. Children intuitively understand this. They preside over the goodness of reality by devoting themselves to it. Like little Platonists, they are experts in the iceness of ice, the mudness of mud, the dogness of a dog. They savor the feel of dirt in their hands and the sound of snow under their feet. They marvel at things I usually find insignificant—if I notice them at all.
The last few months have taught me that seeing through the eyes of a child is more than a nice sentiment. It is a spiritual discipline. Catholic theologian G. K. Chesterton put it this way:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our father is younger than we.”
As I apprentice my sons in this season of inefficiency and limitation, they are retraining my senses to exult in monotony. This is not about resignation but about rediscovery. When we learn to see—to really notice—the expanse of reality before us in every small and ordinary moment, we fall in love with the world again. To love the gift is to know the giver and what it means to bear his image.
Cover image by Jordan Whitt.