“Chin up, chin up. Everybody loves a happy face.’–E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”–Thich Nhat Hanh
One of the special joys in my life are the smiles of toddlers and young children at the school in which I work. As an educator working on a school campus setting that provides care/education for children, ages 6-weeks through 12th grade in different buildings, I often see parents and other educators dropping off their children for daycare or preschool. Some of the little ones are sleepy in the morning, others are crying, some are shy, and others walk in–or are carried in—with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye. They jabber, babble, talk, or even sing with joy, depending upon their age/stage of development.
I could be having a rough start to my day, but if I happen to walk through the campus parking lot alongside a staff member’s bright-eyed child, smile as wide as the sky itself, I can’t help but smile too. Before long, the child has engaged me into a conversation, and all the previous negative energy of the morning fades. I share in the delight of their discovery of a rock or a piece of mulch, and smile back enthusiastically when they show me their shoes, their mittens, or their hat. They find happiness in the very things I tend to overlook or take for granted.
Then there are the babies–wrapped, swaddled, and layered into their parent’s arms. Face peeking out over their caretaker’s shoulder, eyes blinking in the morning air. Those large round orbs, of all shades, take me in, and then, as if I were a royal subject, reward me with a smile. I can’t help but smile back.
The babies, toddlers, and young children look at me and the scenario unfolding around them with fresh eyes and innate good cheer. Eyes that are free from judgment. Eyes that do see my age, my skin color, my size, or care about my socioeconomic status, religious/political affiliation, and so forth. They only see me smiling back at them and hear my affirming voice.
Possessing the ability to look at the world and others without motive is a powerful concept. This is the lesson young children and babies teach, but because we are so busy, or our lives are so removed from young children, we miss the lesson. Imagine, looking at each new day, event, person, even the great outdoors with fresh eyes. What magic, what wonders, what friendly people do we miss because our brains have a tendency to be drawn to to-do lists, work, worries, irritations, conflicts, gossip, bad news, and so forth.
However, children, until we teach them otherwise, are inherently open and accepting. They have no preconceptions about all the things we, as adults, begin to define, discern, and draw lines of division around. A dog’s tail is a thing of wonder to a child. Common dandelions are flower puffs to be plucked, sniffed, touched, and held as an object of fascination. Birds are special creatures who fly and sing for their amusement. Time is of no consequence, and space is meant to be explored–be the space a sidewalk, yard, a floor, or even cabinets of a kitchen.
Of course, as adults, we cannot conduct ourselves exactly in the same manner as young children. However, there are certain behaviors for which we can adopt and put into practice more often. The first of which is smiling.
The late Thich Nhat Hahn was once asked why someone should smile when they weren’t feeling happy. He responded that smiling was a practice. Hahn went on to explain that when we smile, we release tension from our face muscles which in turn releases body tension. The less tension we have, the more we smile. And the more we smile, the more others notice, and in turn, they smile back, often initiating a chain event of others smiling too. A smile, he explained, is “an ambassador of goodwill”.
The act of smiling is contagious, as Hahn pointed out, and a sincere smile has the potential to change the trajectory of a moment. Imagine the power of one person smiling, which triggers another person to smile in response. Then that person’s smile causes another person to smile, and so the chain continues. This is the first lesson of young children.
Another lesson of young children is viewing the world and others with an open mind: Looking widely, listening carefully, and taking in your surroundings without jumping to conclusions and immediately passing judgment. Obviously, there are certain situations in which quick judgements/decisions are required; however, by remaining a calm, lucid, and observant presence, the more likely a pragmatic outcome can be achieved.
Appreciation for the small things is another lesson provided by children. When my own daughter was young, we would sometimes walk through the woods. Her dad’s pant’s pockets would get weighed down from all of the “treasures” she would find along the way. From sparkling rocks to a kaleidoscope of leaves–crimson, gold, and burnt orange, and from a discarded snail shell to a special stick perfect for digging, it was those little delights that added up to big pockets of joy! The world continues to be full of small treasured moments that we too can collect along life’s path, if we view the world as a child.
Finally, there is the lesson of the restorative power of laughter and the healing power of love. One needs only to observe–or recall–the ease with which a child can transition from tears to laughter with the embrace of a trusted loved one, and then the way in which they can explode into laughter, when afterwards, an adult gives them a raspberry. Laughter and love are also contagious, and as the children demonstrate to me on a regular basis, can be the salve to a world full of hurt and sorrow.
Therefore, I encourage you to try, if only for one day, or part of a day, to practice viewing the world with the eyes of a child. Smile at others and even to yourself. Observe events and others with openness and without motive. Notice and gather the small blessings. Enjoy a good belly laugh, or five, and, like a child offering you a flower, offer love to others (think: generosity, gentleness, patience . . .), and see what happens. Who knows how many lives/situations your child-like focus will affect . . . including your own!