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Helping children find joy in spontaneity

One of the most basic joys that we can learn from our kids is the joy of spontaneous delight, including jumping in a puddle.
One of the most basic joys that we can learn from our kids is the joy of spontaneous delight, including jumping in a puddle.

Editor’s note: Portions of this column come from the Eyres’ book "Teaching Your Children Joy," available to read online at

As the new year begins, maybe we parents and grandparents need to resolve to be more childlike — and to have more spontaneous joy with our children. One of the most basic joys that we can learn from our kids is the joy of spontaneous delight.

There is often a paradox in adult minds. On one hand, we admire spontaneity — we speak of the free spirit, the unconventional, with at least a lingering trickle of envy. On the other hand, we associate maturity with words like sophistication, reserve and properness. Parents too often convey the inhibitions of "the other hand" to their children. How many times have you seen a parent give a brow-furrowed look of scorn to a child whose spontaneous delight and enthusiasm were "socially improper"? We let our own inferiorities stamp out the spontaneity in our children, and we let our schools and institutions do the same thing. If we are not careful, it becomes harder to preserve and protect in our children the joys they were born with.

The key method for preserving this joy is encouragement and reinforcement. Children will repeat what they are praised for.

There are many ways to encourage and sanction a particular behavior, but perhaps the best way of all is by participating in that particular behavior yourself. And perhaps the great benefit of preserving the natural spontaneity of children is that we may recapture some of it in ourselves. Here are some specific suggestions:

Get excited with children. Swallow your sophistication and be a child with them. When they say, "Oh, look!" you say, "Wow, yes!" Don't say, "Calm down, son," or "Not here, dear." Emote with them, and let them be your teachers. They are the experts in spontaneity, so do what they do. Live in the moment with them.

Help them relive spontaneous joy moments by remembering. "Remember when we saw the bird pulling up the worm, Saydi? Wasn't that great?" "Remember at the picnic when the grasshopper jumped into the potato salad? Didn't we laugh hard?"

Do spontaneous things with them. "Josh, your mom looks tired. Let's put her to bed for a nap, and you and I will fix dinner."

Make spontaneity a high priority. Place enough value on spontaneity that you let it happen even if it's a little inconvenient. When the days get warmer, suppose you are walking outside on a warm summer afternoon and you spot your 2-year-old stomping with delight in his first puddle. Resist the urge to yank him out with a, "No!" Take off his shoes and let him do it. (Or even better, take off your shoes and do it with him.)

Put new surprises into old fairy tales. It's amazing what delight the mixing of two familiar fairy tales can cause. "While the three bears were walking in the woods, they heard a funny little man singing a song: 'They'll never guess that Rumpelstiltskin is my name.'"

Do things with children that are a little silly and that show how acceptable it is to enjoy unexpected things. Put a mitten on the doorknob and "shake hands" with the door. Get up and do a little dance when the music and the mood hit you.

Engage in the kind of play that produces exciting and unpredictable results. Blow bubbles with a straw (in a glass of soapy water or in the tub at bath time). Finger paint with thick paint. Let the children mix colors. Let them try it with their feet. Play in water with empty plastic bottles, straws or funnels.

Finger paint with shaving cream. Squirt a small amount of aerosol shaving cream on a smooth surface or table in front of each child and sprinkle on a little red powdered tempera paint. Let the children spread it around with their fingers or whole hands. Then sprinkle on a little blue and yellow tempera paint in different places so they can mix colors and see what happens.

Pop popcorn without a lid. Spread a sheet on the floor and put a hot-air popcorn popper in the center of the sheet. Ask the children, "What do you think will happen if I take off the lid?" Instruct them not to touch the hot kernels of popped corn. Don't inhibit the children's squealing and laughter.

Get in the habit of being a little silly with small children. It will reinforce their joy, and it might loosen you up a little and help you get back in touch with your own inner child.