The Little Child’s To-Do List
First published Winter 2019
Time has us in such a rush. There seems to be some unofficial law written into our societal clock that everything has to go fast. Now does not exist. We are oriented only toward the next moment, which we are propelling ourselves toward. We adults remark that we do not have enough time to cram in all the things we feel obliged to accomplish—and hope there will be some spare minutes to slip in something we would just like to do. Breathlessness is a common condition.
We adults do have legitimate and important responsibilities and daily tasks to do. To help us keep organized, we create our to-do lists and feel so happy when we can check something off the list as done!
But what is the to-do list for a little child? His daily agenda is to grow and to develop control of his body, balance in his feelings, and gain general confidence in being able to live this life on earth. There is a natural clock within each child’s being that sets the pace for this to happen in an unstressed and gradual way, just as a flower slowly opens its petals to bloom. And that pace is SLOW. The little child achieves competence and confidence through unrushed, steady practice in everything he does. To do this, he needs for time to be allowed to slow down and for adults to trust that his inner to-do list will guide his steps in finding his way into practical life.
Picture a three-year-old on a snowy, winter morning. To go outside requires getting on all the winter gear, including boots and mittens. Mom or Dad is feeling rushed with a list of errands to get done and then be back home in time for lunch and nap. This also happens to be a day when the child’s inner plans want to do things herself. This parent truly does want to support independence and self-confidence and competence, but is in high gear to have an efficient morning so they can have a more quietly paced afternoon.
Two scenarios can be envisioned here. In the first, parental sense of urgency takes the lead. The parent sits the child down and hurriedly begins to dress her. The pace is too fast; handling is not rough, but impersonal and efficient. This awakens the child’s inner resistance, which results in vigorous, outer physical resistance. Cries ensue—not quite a melt-down but bordering on it. Our parent is not crying, but feels like it. Two unhappy people go out to the car and grimly drive off.
Another possibility is a harder one. The adult to-do list is still as long. The longing for some efficiency in life (as in the old days before having any children) sounds forth loudly. Checking something off the list as done makes us feel like we actually have some control and influence in directing our life. What to do? Taking any more time to dress will torpedo the planned timetable. But the parent takes a little longer look at this new-person-becoming. She has begun to awkwardly put one arm into the sleeve of her coat. Her other arm is searching for the other one. Try and miss, try and miss again. The parent steps out of time and allows the possibility of seeing a magnificent moment emerging, and sits quietly down. Try and miss, try and miss; and then finally success. The child’s face breaks into a radiant smile of contentment and satisfaction. The child cannot articulate her feelings, but we might imagine her saying, “I did this myself. And you let me. You let me take as much time as I needed. Thank you, Mommy. Thank you, Daddy. I am so happy to be here with you on this earth. You make it a good place for me.”
For a tiny, little while, this family has slipped away from the ticking clock and expanded into immeasurable space. Stepping away from time like this is not always possible or practical. Recognition and balancing the needs of all involved is the healthy course we aim for. The parent’s list will still be there for tomorrow. It can be dealt with then, hopefully with an earlier start to getting ready to go and maybe a lowered expectation of what seems essential to accomplish.
On this day, a different to-do list was recognized and honored for the child. Dinner happened just fine without the unusual spice that had seemed so important on our list. The evening was pleasant because we were nicely tired, but not stretched and stressed from a too-busy day. This little one can carry the glow of her emerging competence into the starry heavens as she sleeps. A story, song and call to the angels to guard and keep send her off. A good day ends. The world still turns in its wobbly way, and we have allowed and witnessed a precious moment whose accomplishment will stretch far into the time to come.
May we all free ourselves to take hold of time for such days.