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4 Life Lessons From My 4-Year-Olds

Forgetting that you still have much to learn is the fast track to aging.
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This week, my son turned 4. This made him immeasurably happy, despite the touch of angst about his impending age change. The night before his birthday, he could not fall asleep. Initially, I thought that was about excitement over gifts, gifts, gifts! Cause, you know, it had been a full WEEK since he had opened an obscene number of wrapped packages with his name on it. I was wrong.

On his third or fourth trip out of bed, he came to the door of my bedroom with a worried expression on his face.

"I want to stay 3. I want to always stay small enough to fit under my bed, because I really like it there. When I am 4 I will be too big."

Poor kid. I could see his little worry wheels turning and spinning. Part of me wants him to stay 3, too. What a beautiful boy he is. Silly, naughty, smart and sometimes taking a little too much pleasure in the struggles of others, but in the cutest manner imaginable, so that you instantly forgive him these somewhat evil transgressions.

But he is 4 now, and he has embraced it. Yesterday, we went to a playdate at a school friend's home. The Dad has a silly way of asking my boy every time he sees him if he is 4 yet. My boy loves this little game. The door opened, Mom and Dad and classmate greeted us and my boy exclaimed, even before 'Hello!,' "I AM 4 NOW!"

Such pride in 4; such happiness in being exactly who he is.

I can't tell you the last time I greeted someone who answered the door to me, "I AM 43 NOW!" Can you imagine? There is so much we lose to adulthood. So much joy, so much pride, so much wonder and excitement. Honestly, I think we lose most of those qualities a lot earlier than adulthood. There are the milestones, of course, but they are short-lived.

  • "I AM 13!" (Being a teenager)
  • "I AM 16" (Getting a drivers license)
  • "I AM 18!" (Getting to vote for the teen political wonks)
  • "I AM 21!" (Getting to fully experience every debauchery in Vegas)

I miss that. What age milestones does a 43-year-old have to look forward to? AARP Membership at 50? Senior discounts at chain restaurants at 55? Medicare eligibility at 67? Oy.

Here is the deal. I am 43. That is not old, that is not young. Technically, it is not yet even middle-age, which experts put at 45-60 years old. So, for the next two years, I am still considered the generic "adult" in years. I hope to apply some of the lessons my children have taught me. My beautiful, wise, 4-year-old children, one of whom will someday be 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 (with any luck), and one of whom, who will always be 4, the age she was when she died two years ago. I think about that sometimes -- that I will always be the mother of a 4-year-old. I honestly think that has shaped my mindset on so many things, giving me room to consider these lessons.

1. Age is a privilege.
To get older is a privilege that is not afforded to everyone. Some of us die at 4. Some of us die at 21. Some of us die at 50. Some of us die at 96. Some of us die in time that is measured in just hours or days, not years. Regardless of how old we are, know that it could all change in an instant, a flash. When I worked as a social worker, I recall a meeting called to discuss how to recognize National Social Work Month. Our national association came up with the slogan, "Life can change in an instant. Social Workers are there to help." Sigh. We laughed, collectively, at the urgency of the message, but now that I am older and wiser and have the privilege of my age, I know full well that life can change in an instant. And you never know when that instant might be. Until then, enjoy what you have.

2. Feel the wonder.
Kids have natural excitement that has not been extinguished by responsibilities, relationships, bills or self-consciousness about how they are perceived. Wonder is so fleeting in our lives, but it is so precious. We need to work to always see it, for it is always there. Right there in front of us. There is the wonder of the first snow, and standing straight in ice skates and feeling the breeze on a warm day. When I ask my boy what his favorite season is, he always responds, "All of them!" And he is being honest. There is joy and wonder in all seasons. We just stop noticing it.

3. Feed your interests.
Ain't no obsession like the obsession of a young child. In the last year, my boy has moved from dinosaurs to Greek mythology to superheroes to outer space in his obsessions. They are all fantastically interesting and intricate and unfolding. There is so much to learn and master at 4 years old. When they find something they like, they really, really like it. The folks around them often support these obsessions and buy gifts around it, plan party themes around it, buy them clothes that feature it. How cool is that? A few years ago, I made the connection that the number of weeks in a year closely matched the number of countries in Africa. I got really excited about the idea of learning about a different African nation every week. For about two weeks. Then, PFFFFT, gone. Kids know to feed their interests. They run with it.

4. Get up when you fall.
Today, my boy has fallen off a chair twice and off his bike once. It's nothing to him. He just gets up and gets back on it, whatever "it" happens to be at the time. If it's a bad fall, with a scrape, oh sure, he will cry and carry on. And then he gets back on it. My daughter was the same way. Feel what you feel, but don't let it take you down. Get on with it, you know? This is such an important life lesson. I think about Donna often when I feel down. Her absence is very often the cause of me feeling down. And then I remember her. She had so much to feel down about -- so very much -- and she felt it. She felt every needle and poke and cut and surgery and fever and blood draw and on and on an on. She felt it all, and then she moved on with her day. The sadness and fear and misery she felt were all real, but she never let it define her. They were part of her, to be sure, but so was her joy and wonder and curiosity and love of life. All of life, not just the good stuff.

There is so much to learn from a 4-year-old. My two 4-year-olds teach me every day. I try to be a good student. Too often, as we grow up, we lose sight that we still have much to learn, especially when our teachers are 4 years old. Forgetting that you still have much to learn is the fast track to aging. Nope. I am gonna take a lesson from my boy and embrace my age, with all its wonders and joy.

"I AM 43 NOW!" And that is pretty damn cool.