“I have no special gift. I am only passionately curious.”
The responsibilities of motherhood create many demands on our time. We can suffer in all the areas of life because no one task is ever completed to a satisfactory conclusion. Yes, the toddler is fed. But now there is cereal all over the high chair that needs clearing. Getting dressed and out the door is a military operation. Is a shower going to fit in to the morning, let alone a hair wash or, God forbid, legs and underarms shaved? For me anyway, coffee is a priority and the children may just have to cry while I take care of mommy’s morning mandatory cup o’ java. We are given, during these precious early years, the dual duty of maintaining our wellbeing and that other person in our lives: the one who is not yet equipped with the finger dexterity to work the espresso machine.
From this perspective, I can feel limited. When I face these feelings of restriction, the differences between being an adult and a child begin to reveal a new way of approaching each morning. Yes, there are two of us (or four if you include my other children) that need to eat breakfast before a busy day of work, school or play, but how it goes is 90% attitude, 7% organization and 3% commands like the military general I pretend to be in the small platoon called “my family.”
My toddler, however, is over there busy making new connections between his surroundings and the meaning of an object within it. I think I know the meaning of the objects that surround me. Instead of choosing an approach more in line with my toddler’s curiosity, I either stress or relax at the inferences made between objects and my judgments about them. It never occurs to me that I might connect to my environment differently. Seeing my toddler make new discoveries while he simultaneously attempts to master his breakfast eating “get-that-food-to-my-mouth-somehow” skills, makes me marvel at the open book his life represents. From there, it is not so difficult to see that it is not my responsibilities that limit or restrict me, but my opinions about whether or not something is good or bad.
If I let him be an example for the method I employ in my own journey, I can be reminded that there are always more skills to master, discoveries to learn and definitions to define. More importantly, his stage of development shows me that the process of life is a great adventure. As an adult, I have the freedom to choose discovery as my approach to the unfolding of every day. I can enter into each activity with the curious mindset that assures me I will learn something new, be enriched from the experience and go away with an expanded perspective. This is very similar to my toddler’s discovery that if he waved at the mommy in the mirror, she would wave back.
A game we played the other day consisted of us spending an hour at the mirror waving at our reflections and then waving at each other face to face. He was riveted by this person in the mirror that looked just like his mommy. He waved to that lady. She waved back. Then he quickly turned his head and looked at the real me. We did this over and over again. The look on his face was priceless. From there he began to play with his brother’s Spiderman pen. If you push the button on top, Spiderman talks to you and says things like, “With great power comes great responsibility.” He pressed the button again and again, wondering where the voice was coming from. It was, quite frankly, hilarious to watch.
From this exchange I learned the value of the question, “What can I be more interested in that will lead to a new level of joy and appreciation in my life?” I already know that a reflection in the mirror is just a copy of me. Yet, surely there must be something I can sneak into my life that will produce the same effect as his delight. He has the mindset of an explorer. I have the mindset of a cafeteria worker plopping out the 800th scoop of refried beans on taco day (no offense meant to any cafeteria workers reading this now). When did my world become so predictable that a poopy diaper before lunchtime is the biggest surprise of my day? After all, I live with a toddler, for goodness sake! If that isn’t enough to keep things “interesting,” I don’t know what is. He constantly finds something fascinating to eat, lick, put up his nose or down the toilet, or some other place that results in me dashing towards him in slow motion screaming, “No!”
His prevailing attitude about life is “What can I learn here?” This, I now know, is a question for the curious mind. My toddler answers it when he picks up an object and looks at it with amazement. He is a great teacher because he doesn’t lecture me, he shows me. From his example, I have learned that nothing is so recognizable that there is nothing new to discover. If I am lost to that fact, all I have to do is spend more time with him. By playing a game of his choosing and digging deeper to find the wonder that is all around me, I become the curious student of life’s forever changing landscape. It is the door leading to new opinions about laundry, games that have no end and Spiderman pens. My toddler has taught me to be “passionately curious” and that has made all the difference in my busy, laundry and poopy-diaper filled days.
When my son and I were playing our mirror game, he looked at himself in the mirror, laughed, waved and had whole conversations with his reflection. He held up his brother’s Pokemon cards and showed them to his mirror twin. The sense I caught from that exchange was a wish to share a neat thing with a friend. In his moment of play, his world was full of curiosities: the reflections, the pen, the sounds coming from it and the cards that meant nothing, but his brother liked them, so they must be cool. During the toddler stage, our children are curious about everything.
This inquisitiveness demonstrates how fun the world can be, even when laundry mounts to industrial proportions. With an amazing persistence, my toddler converses with a stranger in the mirror that only seems to talk when he’s talking. The game continues long after it is time for me to start thinking about what we are going to do for dinner. And, I will also say, that he has no concept of winning or losing. Rather he starts with curiosity and moves into the mirror activity as a means of discovery. Wanting to understand how the world effects his experience, he toddles from one marvel to another, never giving up on his quest for knowledge. He takes every opportunity to expand his mind to new plateaus of understanding.
His restrictions are greater than I could possibly imagine, but still they cannot compare to how much he awaits to discover. My definition of limiting “problems” forms the basis of my impatience, small-mindedness and ability to take molehills and make mountains. My toddler may grow frustrated when I don’t understand his language, but he doesn’t interpret my lack of understanding as a reason to halt the process of acquiring new pieces of context-expanding keepsakes. He just tries harder until I figure it out, find another way to satisfy his immediate longing or cries while he is fixated on wanting that “thing,” which is never for as long as I have been wanting a decent night’s sleep. My idea of what constitutes a “problem” and his are about as different as egg salad and fillet mignon. I act according to my definitions; he makes definitions after he acts.
He doesn’t have (yet!) all those classifications that are the hallmark of the adult life. As part of my landscape as a human being, I am a wife. I am a mother. I was and continue to be a daughter and sister. But I am also much more. Without a sense of curiosity about what or how I can be in the world, I hold myself back from the potential of life. Today I can be the mother who takes molehills and makes mud pies instead of mountains. Or, I can be the uncharacteristic mom who undertakes a mountain of laundry with a curious mind. Doing each load I can challenge myself to think of new things to try on my own, with my partner or with my children. As I practice being curious, I find that I am never short of a refreshing insight or an updated definition of what I am in the grander picture.
When I assume that I fit into the world only in a certain way, I close myself off to the possibility of ever being anything different. Before the portrait of my life is finished, I have already defined myself for the rest of it. I brought in the dictionary of “life’s definitions,” found my picture and stopped questioning myself about what I am “supposed” to be. It is based on past experience, which never gives the present moment a chance to be something different than predicted. My time and energy might be better spent open to whatever may be discovered about the world that is new, wondrous and deepens my appreciation for life. Curiosity is the quality that will lead to further opportunities for unexpected definitions of self and the objects I encounter.
By learning from the curiosity of my toddler, I make fresh connections and even unexpected friendships. That is the true meaning of “be curious” – the ability on my part to always be willing to learn something new. A desire to discover makes toddlers fun to be with and also periodically frustrating for us parents. But we also know their thrilling realizations begin with curiosity. We understand on some level there is value in tuning our lives on their perspective. Our phrases “It brings out the kid in me” and “I feel like a kid again” prove this to be so. They both imply the hopefulness that we will always remain connected to the youthful spirit of childhood.
My suggestion for anyone wanting to practice being more curious about life and open up new possibilities is to start by playing with your child. Pay attention to their natural curiosity. You will notice that it leads to fresh discoveries almost immediately. Then share the experience of delight. My example of my toddler and I playing in front of the mirror is just one. There are an infinite number of ways we can benefit from observing these displays of curiosity leading to discovery.
With close study, I see that everything my toddler does at this point of his development is reflective of a deep well of curiosity. From there, I can quickly move into an understanding of the feeling of curiosity. I can take this feeling into any situation, whether new or very familiar. Holding my attention on the feeling, I let go of expectations. Try it for a week and my guess is that you will be amazed by the freshness of even your dreariest tasks. Your toddler is here to show you what an ounce of curiosity can lead to. I’m not so naïve that I don’t know sometimes the curious poke at the plug leads to a shock. However, I’m also in tune with his desire to discover enough that I know his curiosity expands his world to precious new insights that he will take with him forever. I, for one, am unwilling to stop growing or expanding my horizons just because a mortgage makes me more grown-up than a two year old toddler without an eye for electrical currents. That’s my job. I monitor his curiosity, appreciating its meaning in the overall context of “my life” and keep him from landing on the wrong side of life’s little dangers. When I look at his antics from this perspective, I feel a whole lot more light-hearted about cereal, fuzzy legs and underarms and all the great predictable unpredictability my toddler brings to my day.
Tips from the toddler:
- 1. Play with me noticing how curious I am.
- 2. Take me to a new place and watch me discover.
- 3. Practice being open to new definitions.
- 4. Ask, “What can I learn here?” twice a day or more.
- 5. Take a walk by yourself (or with me if I am sleeping) and find ten new things you hadn’t noticed before.