Persistence and Joy: Lessons from a Toddler at Play
I watch my boy at play: one clumsy little foot flies out in the vicinity of a falling football. He giggles wildly at the gap between intention and reality, the ball propelled not by feet as was the aim, but by wayward arms with flailing legs lagging behind. When life is good, it is grand – and the whole world is a playground. He is not embarrassed. Mistakes are simply serendipitous pathways to hilarious alternative games, equally as valid as the original. Oh, the sweetness of trying again and again without success!
My little boy’s approach to the acquisition of a new skill is so very, very different to mine. My first reaction to the comparison is to be appalled at my own pride when it comes to learning. As an adult, persisting in a challenge is often far from joyful; I’m more likely to perceive it as suffering. My pride taking repeated hits as I see and hear myself rehearsing skills I’ve far from mastered, always calculating if the payoff is going to be worth it for the amount of effort and time required – time and effort being such limited resources to the adult mind, and yet so wonderfully infinite in the mind of a young child. A toddler does not think about how he will later be tired. That the daylight will come to an end is of no concern to him. He lives purely and delightfully in the present moment.
As I watch I realise that the way we perceive this challenge is completely different. What I see, despite his persisting with great gusto, is my little boy repeatedly failing at kicking a ball. But to him each attempt is a success, for it fulfills the aims of his play. Play is a child’s work as they discover the world around them, a foundation upon which a person can build all other skills. He is using this experience to discover his own abilities, understand the workings of his body, and explore how he can affect things outside of himself. As adults, our role changes and expands to one of increased responsibilities – to care for ourselves and others, and to work productively, are added to leisurely activities, and so it should be.
Tempted as I may be, I cannot return to a pre-adult state void of responsibilities and blissfully unaware of my surroundings. I can’t just do things in my own little bubble all day, ignoring piles of dirty washing and dinner that needs cooking. What then can I take from this? I love the reckless abandon with which he persists, but in reality I can’t replicate it. Then it hits me, seeing this smiling babe engrossed in his task, that perhaps the allure is not that he is persistent but that he is joyful.
Observing him speaks playful encouragement to my heart. Be brave. Laugh. Try again. Discover something new. It’s not so serious. No need to be embarrassed. Make space for joy in that time spent learning and doing and making mistakes.
The weights and measures of adulthood are useful, but I can certainly recall a time or two when self-preservation or time-pressure has slipped over the line and become a convenient excuse not to do worthwhile things that take time and effort. Next time I’m tempted to give up for a perfectly grown-up reason I can take a quick glance over at my little boy- flailing and giggly- playing and practicing with a joyful heart. And if the task is indeed a worthwhile pursuit, I think this image might just help me push through and persist, and maybe even enjoy the process.
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Cat is a follower of Jesus, the tea-drinking wife of a coffee roaster and the stay-at-home mum of one busy toddler. She delights in the mingling of art and science, small and simple pleasures, wit and whimsy, and the doing of life. Her heart is to encourage. When she’s not pottering behind the scenes at Precision Coffee Roasters, you’ll likely find her eating cake, trying new recipes, making lists, or just playing – with or without a child.