A famous lesson a child taught to an entire court was uttered in one sentence from Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: “But, Daddy, he’s got nothing on.” While the king, all the members of the court and even the common people on the street watching the king’s procession dared not speak the truth lest they appear unfashionable or unpopular and lest they appear stupid or incompetent, the child, who is not a respecter of persons or skillful at guile, has no anxiety about preserving his public image or losing favor with the king. When adults learn to speak the truth with candor like a child, they discover that a whole world of others has the same thought but lacks the confidence to utter it. Soon everyone begins repeating the words of the child: “At last, everybody who was there began shouting, ‘He’s got nothing on’.” The truth is that powerful.
Children also teach adults how to live simply and how to take delight in ordinary pleasures. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men, Mother Bhaer marvels at the ease of bringing pleasure and joy to children: “It takes so little to make a child happy, that it is a pity in a world full of sunshine and pleasant things, that there should be any wistful faces, empty hands, or lonely little hearts.” All the children at Plumfield Academy find the greatest enjoyment in their modest surroundings and school. As Nat, a new pupil, arrives at the school, he sees all the innocent forms of good old fashioned fun the children enjoy on a typical day: cricket fields planned, flutes playing, a girl singing to her doll, games of tag, checkers and marbles going on, and drawing on the blackboard. Happiness never requires luxuries or enslavement to debt.
Children teach adults how to trust in Divine Providence. When Diamond’s mother in At the Back of the North Wind worries about feeding her family when her husband is unemployed, she laments to her son that “your father has nothing to do and we shall have nothing to eat by and by.” Diamond replies that the birds somehow manage to survive in the winter because the rosebushes were the birds’ barns. He reassures his mother that when their cupboards are empty, auntie’s cupboard can provide. He reminds her that somehow he always manages to find enough to eat even though he has no cupboard: “I think there must be a big cupboard somewhere, out of which the little cupboards are filled, you know, mother.” The child’s words echo the Sermon on the Mount that refers to the birds in the air that do not gather into barns, “and yet your heavenly father feeds them.” Children teach others how to trust, believe and have faith.
Children teach adults how to be lucky and how to invite “beginner’s luck.” They teach adults how not to take themselves too seriously or attach supreme value to material things. Unlike gamblers who play to win big stakes, weigh the odds, and study strategies, children are like amateur fishermen who play the game for pure enjoyment and catch fish with little effort. As many proverbs testify in sayings about the mystery of luck, children, fools and fishermen do not try too hard or know too much: “His net caught fish while he was asleep.” The most innocent, guileless, and luckiest of characters in the Grimm folktales is the boy in “Hans in Luck” who is tricked by many cunning merchants who cheat him of his lump of gold, horse, cow, and pig so that he returns home with no cares or burdens, cheerful and lighthearted: “I really think . . . I am the luckiest man under the sun.” Children remind adults of the reality of the undeserved gift (grace) and correct the notion that man receives only what he earns by hard work alone.
Children instruct adults on how to play, to do delightful things for the pure joy and sheer pleasure they bring—to do fun-loving things that are inherently desirable and good for their own sake, not as a means to an end. Why do children play? They play for only one reason: because it is fun. They do not play because the doctor recommends fresh air and exercise as beneficial to health or because the psychologist advises play for socializing children or because the coach promises them they will become better athletes. Children show us that some activities are loved for their own sake, pure and simple, not for any utilitarian reasons or ulterior motives. Just as virtue is its own reward, play too is self-justifying. Children teach adults what Blessed Cardinal Newman explained philosophically when he said “the good is always useful.” He explains that anything that is loved for its own sake for its pure joy always produces many additional benefits: “nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of it all around it. Good is prolific . . . .” A child’s play produces a joy that fills the heart and overflows, bringing cheer everywhere because goodness by its nature diffuses and communicates blessings.
Children teach adults to see the world with the eyes of wonder and freshness and not with bleary, jaded eyes and senses. They educate older generations to dispel the boredom of “déjà vu” as if all experience tires with repetition. Children find interest in the multitude of things that surround them from seashells to flowers to animals to stars to books. In Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book the children enjoy all the four seasons as they gather nuts in the fall, go sledding in the winter, climb a mountain in the spring, and always ask for another story or the same favorite story to be read again. They revel in the natural beauty of the world captured in the golden hues of autumn and in the pure whiteness of the snow; they find the outdoors an inexhaustible source of interest, always looking forward to the next adventure. They never tire of stories and beg always for another one. When the storyteller protests that he has told them the same fairy tales many times and he will lull them to sleep, the children respond “No, no, no . . . . : we like a story all the better for having heard it two or three times.” Children impress upon adults the famous “Happy Thought” in Robert L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses: “The world is so filled with a number of things, / I’m sure we should all be happy as kings.” They illuminate the truth captured in a famous line from Hopkins’ “The Grandeur of God: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Children teach adults the meaning of a pure heart that longs for someone with a true wish from the depths of the soul. They teach older generations to wish, hope, and pray for the right things instead of indulging in fantasies about King Midas’ golden touch or pleasure palaces. In Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” the little girl Gerda searches far and wide for her beloved companion, her dearest friend Kay whom she played with in the golden days of summer in the rose garden. She travels on a long journey and asks for information about the boy captured by the Snow Queen. The sincerity of Gerda’s wish, the deep longing she expresses, and the innocence and sweetness of her manner touch everyone’s heart and move them to offer every form of assistance. No one can say no to unspoiled charm of the girl who asks, “Tell me, if you can, where I shall find my playfellow”—neither a prince and princess, a robber girl, or older women. When the Finnish woman beseeches the Lapland woman to give Gerda some special gift to rescue Kay from the spell of the Snow Queen, she replies that Gerda already has extraordinary power: “Can’t you see how great that is? Can’t you see how she makes man and beast serve her, and how well she’s made her way in the world on her own bare feet? She mustn’t know of her power from us—it comes from heart, it comes of her being a sweet innocent child.” Children instruct adults on how to center their hearts on the good and wish for the purest forms of happiness.
The blessing of children and grandchildren brings light, warmth, joy, surprise, hope, and wisdom into the lives of adults who easily lose a love of life, grow blasé, suffer world weariness, look forward to nothing, and let anxieties about money dull the mind, harden the heart, and kill the spirit. Children teach men to speak the truth, to enjoy the simple, to trust in God, to wonder at life, to revel in play and to have a pure heart.