Thursday, June 5, 2014

Life, Kindergarten, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Every time I see an online post titled something to the effect of "20 Things I Will Teach My Daughter" or "75 Things I Want to Do with My Kids to Make Them Active Citizens in an Increasingly Global World", I read it, partly because I want to see how my parental teachings stack up. What nuggets of wisdom am I already imparting and what am I missing?

This week, my daughter finishes kindergarten. In the past seven days, I've also had a preschooler finish his year and a first and third birthday, so you've caught me on a particularly weepy week. But my daughter's matriculation from kindergarten has me thinking about the list of advice I shared with her on her first day of school and wondering if a post titled "3 Things I Said as I Sent My Peanut into the World of Formal Education" would be of use to anyone. Probably not, but here it is anyway.

I gave her a note on her first day, and I told her that while she was in school, she would learn so many things. No matter what she learned, and how old she was, she should always remember these three things.

Be Kind.
Be Curious.
Be Yourself.

Kindness is magic. Even in small doses, it has great healing power. I can remember, with great regret, times when I was unkind to others, and with great relief, times when others were kind to me. Think of all that we might accomplish if we were kinder to each other, if we recollected more often that unkind and kind behavior can leave equal traces. I watched my daughter shrink under the embarrassment of being pushed over on the bus, and then rise with grace at the hand of a sympathetic third-grader.

Curiosity is a kind of Miracle-Gro. Under the influence of a curious nature, we flourish. The world is a curious place, as Alice noted so often while down the rabbit hole, and if we are scared or unwilling or uninterested in asking questions of it, we cannot properly grow into better beings. Our daughter has implanted an infectious curiosity in her brothers; I cannot get through an entire book without a half-dozen inquiries about words' meanings. Even our three-year-old, who doesn't quite know what it means to ask "what does it mean?", is building a habit of asking without fear.

To be yourself is sometimes the greatest challenge of all. We spend a lifetime with ourselves, trying to figure out who we are and what we want, and along the way we sometimes try too hard to fit in or be someone we are not. The person we are cultivating will certainly change, but that change should be on our own terms. Embracing our individual weirdness can be hard, especially in school, but how freeing it is to finally look in the mirror and see the self we want, and not the self that others determine is okay. From the viewpoint of a mother who has always struggled with this, my daughter's unembarrassed self-acceptance is a relief and a joy.

I could have added so many things to this list. Be confident. Be strong. Be proud. Be cautious. Be risky. Be dependable. Be a dreamer. Be a listener. Be a doer. And I'm sure that in time in years of schooling and living, she will learn all of these things.

But last week, when the mounds of papers started coming home, I was reading her writing journal, and I noticed a pattern in her words that cut right to my heart. The lesson that she learned, the "Be" that enveloped her and that I had not thought to include, was present on almost every page: "I was happy."

Perhaps it was just that her vocabulary of emotions wasn't expansive. But I don't think so. I think she genuinely saw that happiness is important, and that so many things make her happy, from the park to her friends to to ice cream to family outings to trips to Grandma's. And her happiness was big enough as she talked about all the doings of her life that she expressed it over and over.

Such is the wisdom of six-year-olds. It matters to be kind, curious, and yourself. But happiness should be front and center. We seek it, it slips by us, we envision it in places or things that are like walls of smoke, we wake with a start to realize that is is staring us in the face. And maybe, in the pursuit of happiness, amongst all the other things we are trying to achieve, we should look for it in the realm of a kindergartner: in parks, ice cream, and family. It's a place to start, anyway.