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Rug Rats 101

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I watched a toddler ponder the recliner before her. Obviously still new to the walking game, she noticed that the chair was far enough from the wall that she could walk around it. Circumnavigation runs deep in the human psyche.

She proceeded to make her way—teetering but methodical—until she circled the chair. She admired her accomplishment for a moment, then took off for a brightly colored toy in the middle of the playroom. She could cross “walk around the big blue chair” off her Baby Bucket List.

I am very fond of my five grand nephews and nieces who live in a shoe (they are kind of like a live fairy tale for me) in Connecticut. I’ve watched them all grow since infancy. (There are 7-year-old triplets sandwiched between a 10- and 4-year old.) The energy is indescribable and relentless. Visits are like stepping inside a nuclear chain reaction. When we leave after a long weekend, the ringing in our ears doesn’t stop until long after we cross the George Washington Bridge, at which point I’ve sworn again to wear a protective cup during the next visit.

But watching these five on the rare occasions when I’m not the punch-toy of the day, I’ve learned something about young brains: What we call play is not play to children. It’s work, little kid work that has purpose, structure and goals and that provides a sense of achievement.

You can see it in the intensity of their eyes, that focus on getting whatever it is that needs to be done, done right (though you’re clueless about the goal). A child brooks no interruption. He stays focused until the object is gained. Then, of course, he must show it to you as a formal record of achievement. Most significant, children, brimming with enthusiasm and confidence, approach all such work voluntarily. Somewhere along the line we working adults have lost the childhood secret to loving your work.

Of course, there is a kid version of play to go along with all the serious work. In the case of the Five Stooges, that generally consists of hurling themselves into various areas of my anatomy. (Hence the vow to come equipped with a cup next visit.)

I’ve noticed something else about the kid brain: the tendency to fixate on the most insignificant minutiae—say a box of packing popcorn—followed by sudden outbursts of sheer joy or rage. Add the unsteadiness of learning to walk and the uncontrolled laughter over nothing in particular, and you get a perfect example of a brain that is drunk. This is why you don’t give alcohol to young children. They’ve already had enough, and they’ve produced it naturally, without the risk of hangover. (Incidentally, it’s also why you don’t let babies and young children drive or operate a motor vehicle.)

Babies are drunk on life, and somewhere along the line we adults have lost our way in that regard as well.

We parents think it’s our duty to teach our children well. It’s actually the other way around. From infancy through childhood, kids can teach us a great deal about keeping the bucket list simple, turning work into play, and getting plastered on life without Captain Morgan and Coke.

And then for fun, we can learn to run headlong into each other for no reason at all. Try it at work and see for yourself.

Reid Champagne’s wife says this column “really explains a lot.”

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