I have the best conversations with my kids when they’re supposed to be asleep already. As they’re lying in bed in the darkness, they relax and their minds seem to open up. It’s then that I get a glimpse of their surprising wisdom. And it gives me immense hope for the future of humanity.
I don’t mean the typical “kids say the darnedest things” kind of stuff. I mean: startling philosophical insights. When he had just turned three, for example, my son said to me in the darkness: “Thank you, mommy.” “Thank you for what?” I asked. “Thank you for giving the birth of me,” he said. We hadn’t been talking about his birth. It wasn’t close to his birthday. I was absolutely knocked out. Around the same era, he studied my face reflectively and asked, “Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout, mommy?” Kids that age aren’t supposed to be able to fathom that another person has thoughts of their own, much less to be interested in them. He was five when we lay snuggling and he wondered aloud: “When our arms are touching like this, is there always still some space in between, no matter how close we get?” He was fascinated with that concept.
Now he’s six, and he’s as much an old soul as ever. Several nights ago, after he had been quiet for some time, he suddenly stirred with a question, as if it were the continuation of an ongoing conversation: “Oh, mommy,” he said, “I wanted to ask you: what are you really good at?” I gave it some thought and answered: “Well, I’m good at writing. And I’m good at reading lots of things and talking with lots of people and looking all around and noticing that there are patterns across all of those things that other people might not have noticed. And then I’m good at explaining those patterns in ways that make people say, ‘Hey, yeah! I see what you mean! And that’s important!’” He thought about this for a moment and then said, “So, you’re kind of like a fortune teller. But not a fortune, exactly. You’re more like a world teller.” I smiled at him and said, “Yeah. A world teller. I like that.”
A few nights later, after a similar quiet pause in the darkness, he mumbled in an already sleepy voice: “I’ve been wondering… how could anyone be without everything?” In the silence that followed, I puzzled: “Does he mean that he feels like he needs all his toys and other stuff to feel safe and happy? Is he worried about people who lose all their belongings?” Then he continued: “I mean, I needed you and Natalie (his sister) and Bomma (my mother) and Grandma Dorothy so that I could become me.” Whoa. He meant: how could anyone be without everything else. This is systems thinking at its best. It brought to mind a quote from Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who said: “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors.” But this is not something I normally talk about with my six-year-old. “You’re right,” I said to him. “That’s very wise of you to think about that.”
His unexpected wisdom feeds my hope for the future. Modern philosopher Ken Wilber writes about stages of human development and says that there will always be large parts of the population – perhaps even the majority – at the least mature stages because that’s where we start out our lives. That’s a depressing thought: how will humanity ever get out of the mess we’re in, in that case? But what if we are underestimating our capacity to advance to the wisest stages at an early age? What if our parenting styles and our schools and our communities were oriented around the task of raising wise children, who grow up to be even wiser adults? What if even our organizations were designed to support our continued growth? I’ve been seeing more and more initiatives that are moving in this direction. Zoe Weil is doing wonderful things with the Institute for Humane Education, for example. My children’s school (St. George’s in Montreal) has a strong focus on teaching critical thinking as the basis for wisdom, starting in kindergarten. And I’m encountering more and more leaders who see their organizations as vehicles for the personal growth of everyone involved. I find it very encouraging.
That night, with his weighty existential question off his chest, my son fell almost immediately to sleep. I then walked into my eight-year-old daughter’s room. As I sat with her in the darkness, it seemed that she, too, was puzzling something out in her mind. Finally, she shared her question with me: “Mommy, I’ve been wondering,” she said, very seriously. “Is it even possible for British people to talk normally?” I had to laugh. And funny though it was, it still opened the door for an important conversation about what is “normal.”
We’re getting there.