I’ve been a dad for six months now so I thought now would be a good time to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned so far.
Being a parent is as much about teaching as it is about learning. On one hand, it’s important to make sure we are passing on the correct values and creating self-sufficient and useful adults. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, we can learn a fair bit from them, too.
They don’t teach us intentionally, or course. Still, their pure, unbiased perspectives can help us rediscover important lessons we’ve forgotten about ourselves and the world.
Here are six such lessons I’ve learned from my little one over the past six months.
1. Be completely present.
Babies don’t understand time yet, which is partly what makes them such radiant and attractive beings. To them, nothing exists outside of the present moment. They’re like Buddhist monks. Because of this, they can sense when an adult who is supposed to be paying attention to them isn’t completely present. You might be able to fool other adults into thinking you’re paying attention, but you can’t fool kids. They know when your mind is elsewhere.
My son’s mind is not yet cluttered with thoughts about the past or the future. As a result, he is highly sensitive to this kind of erratic energy from others. He immediately notices when I’m not fully in the present moment.
There have been few times when I’ve tried to sneak in a little work on my phone while playing with him. He calls me out immediately in the form of grunts or whines or outright crying. I’ve learned it’s better to work when I work and play when I play.
2. Give yourself permission to do it badly at first.
My son lives as though he’s already read The Compound Effect — a book that drives home the idea that incremental improvements over time add up to huge results.
Case in point: He’s been working on crawling for the past few months and it’s been inspiring to watch. Not because he got it right the first time — or the hundredth time for that matter — but because he continues to put in the work regardless of the results. He somehow instinctively knows he must must continue to try or he won’t learn what he needs to learn. And through this process he gets just a little better every day.
The reason he is able to persist in the absence of an immediate positive outcome is because he’s not afraid of looking silly and doing it imperfectly. If you were to look at his progress over the course of a few days, it wouldn’t look like much:
Attempt 57: Stretches arms outward while lying on stomach.
Attempt 58: Pumps legs in crawling motion but doesn’t move an inch.
Attempt 59: Tries to do push-up. Not strong enough yet.
But what we don’t see in this snapshot are the dozens of attempts before and after. By the time he gets to attempt 172, he’s discovered what works and what doesn’t. This enables him to put together all the micro movements he’s learned over the past few months, resulting — finally — in a successful crawling attempt.
We must come to terms with the fact that in order to master anything, we will stumble around at first. There is almost always an awkward phase. Give yourself permission to “fail.” I put fail in quotes because my son reminds me daily that failure is a concept made up by adults — apparently as an excuse to quit.
When attempting something new, don’t be afraid to do it badly at first and make adjustments as you go. That’s how you get good. You don’t need to make quantum leaps, you just need to improve tiny bit each day. When you look back after a few months or years, you’ll be astounded at how far you’ve come. As habit researcher James Clear writes: “If you get just 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.”
3. Take play seriously.
Many animals — Homo Sapiens included — learn about themselves and the world by playing. If you think about the people who are the best in the world at what they do — those who we admire and revere — they are often adults who take play very seriously.
Mozart was playing when he was composing music.
Steve Jobs was playing when he was building computers.
Albert Einstein was playing when was figuring out the laws of nature.
Oprah is playing when she has intimate conversations with people.
Will Smith is playing when he acts.
Obviously, there’s more to the greatness equation than simply playing, but it’s undoubtedly a core component. If you view your work as drudgery, it’s unlikely you will excel at it.
Of course, there’s a difference between productive play and mindless leisure time. Activities like watching TV or laying by the pool have their place but they will not, by themselves, help you improve in a meaningful way. What makes play productive is focused effort and attention. Babies are captivated by everything so this part is easy for them. As adults, we need to be honest about what truly calls our attention and pursue it.
We would also do well to blur the line between work and play a bit. Babies have not yet drawn a hard distinction between the concepts of “work” and “play” so in their mind, they are one and the same. Babies play every opportunity they get. They play with things adults wouldn’t even consider toys. Every situation is an opportunity to explore. As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.”
4. Have a beginner’s mind.
My son is a learning machine. He can’t help but look at the world with fresh eyes. This superpower enables him to soak up information about his environment at a mind-boggling pace.
Another thing that allows him to learn so readily is a having a mind that’s free of judgement. This seems to be a universal quality among babies. Even the most ornery and insecure adults tend to drop their guards and light up when they get around an infant. This is partly because they know the baby isn’t judging them — it’s just trying to learn. And learning is difficult when the mind is in judgement mode.
Of course, judgement isn’t always a bad thing. Having good judgement is quite useful in the adult world. We have to discern when to close our minds and when to keep them open. But sometimes we close our minds too tightly and don’t allow new information to change us.
The beginner’s mind is about seeing things with fresh eyes. As a thought experiment, try looking at life through the eyes of a child. How would you perceive the world if you didn’t have the words to describe it? If you didn’t have emotional baggage? If you wanted to actually learn rather than just be right? When you look at things in this way, you increase the probability that you will learn something new.
5. Focus on the fundamentals.
As an adult, it’s easy to complicate life. This is understandable — life is messy and seems to get more complex by the day. But most of the lessons that are truly important are those we teach our kids. We should, therefore, pay attention to these lessons.
When we speak to young children, we distill ideas down to their most essential parts in an effort to make things as simple as possible. This is a useful process, not just for them but also for us. When we compress knowledge in this way, we see how simple life can potentially be.
Here are some things I’ve said to my son over the past six months that I would do well to apply to my own life more often:
“Isn’t nature beautiful? Look at that tree! And that bird! And that flower! And that mountain!”
“We exercise because it makes us feel good and keeps us strong.”
“Good food helps keep us strong and healthy. That’s why we eat good food every day.”
“You fell but you’re okay.”
“Sometimes we don’t feel happy and that’s okay.”
“It’s okay that you’re frustrated.”
“If you keep practicing, you’ll get better.”
“Dad loves you. Mom loves you. The trees love you. The sky loves you. The stars love you. The universe loves you.” (A chant I came up with to calm him down during “code red” crying fits. Works like a charm.)
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
Babies are in a tough situation: they are at a time in their lives when they have the most needs and also the least communication skills. So they use the few tools they have at their disposal, which include crying, whimpering, yelling, etc.
Conventional parenting wisdom says that kids under 6-9 months have no “wants,” only needs. In other words, basically everything they ask for is both urgent and important. My experience corroborates this.
My son takes his needs very seriously. He could be in the middle of playing and having a great time, but if he suddenly realizes he’s hungry, he’ll start grunting and whining. If we miss these cues, it will escalate into a “code red” crying fit. Point being, he knows what he wants and isn’t shy about telling us. And as parents, we respond to his needs accordingly.
I’m not advocating you throw a fit to get your way. What I am saying is that many of us could be more assertive and direct about what we need. As adults, we are often afraid of asking for what we want or need for fear that we will offend somebody or seem too needy. These are reasonable objections but we cannot let them stand in the way of getting what we deserve.
Ask for what you need (preferably without yelling or crying). It’s not certain you’ll get it, but the chances are much higher than if you never ask.
Ruben Chavez is a writer, personal development educator, and host of The Think Grow Podcast. He has created a community of over 3 million readers across his collective platforms, including his popular Instagram page ThinkGrowProsper. Along with this blog, these platforms are his way of inspiring and connecting with thoughtful, creative, and ambitious people just like you.