One thing that being a play therapist and working with children has taught me is that I have a lot to learn from kids. I often made (and still make) the mistake of approaching my relationships with children with an attitude in which they always and only play the role of the learner, and I the teacher. If I could put words to this attitude of mine, it may sound something like this: “Behold, I am a grown-up who, by virtue of my chronological age, possess an untold wealth of knowledge and experience. Come children, sit at my feet, and bask in the glory of all that there is to learn. Where do you want to start? The A-B-C’s? Basic addition and subtraction? Or would you prefer something like ‘How to win friends and influence people’?” I could go on, but experience tells me that you (and, particularly, they) would probably be bored and unimpressed.
Certainly, there are important things that children can and should be learning from the adults in their lives, but it is all too easy for this to be the all-encompassing dynamic that characterizes adult-child interactions and relationships. What might children have to offer us if we approach them with an attitude of humility, openness, and curiosity in which we seek to understand rather than to be understood? What would happen if we sought to listen more than we spoke, follow more than we led, and “play with” children more than we “talked at” them?
Here are just some of the significant learnings I have gained from approaching my interactions with children as a learner: I have learned pure, “un-adult-erated” joy. I have learned about the wonders that can come from a little imagination and creativity. I have witnessed the power of presence and the sting of its absence. I have been reminded that play is not a luxury but a necessity. I have learned to loosen up, to be goofy, and to not be overly concerned about what other people think. I have realized the value that comes when we do not live behind a “mask” and are honest and genuine in our interactions with others (e.g., if you are having a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” don’t be phony and act as if you are not – let someone else in every once in a while).
Given this list of valuable insights I’ve gained from my interactions with kids, it may go without saying that children have been some of my greatest teachers. I would never have experienced that unless I provided opportunities to let them lead. So, for your own benefit and theirs, aspire to make your next interaction with a child be from the stance of a learner and enjoy the insights that may come as a result.
Nick Cornett, PhD, LMFT, LPC, Registered Play Therapist is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at John Brown University. His specialty areas include play therapy and marriage and family therapy.