I had a great time Wednesday night playing with a smart and gregarious 4-year-old in the checkout line at Target. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, both because it makes me smile and because it makes me wonder why so many adults lose the child-like qualities that make real play so joyful.
It was a long line for a number of people. There was a problem with the register, so we were stuck for a couple of minutes. The woman in front of me had two little girls with her, and the girls went to the wall beyond the checkout line to wait. Then the oldest of the two called out to her mother, “Mom, the ice here costs $1.99.”
The mother smiled and agreed with her that that’s what the sign said. She told me the girl had been learning how to read and understand prices.
“That’s not a lot of money, is it?” the girl asked in our general direction.
The mother was busy talking to the cashier by then, so I responded by telling her that it would be a lot of money for a piece of gum, but it would not be much money for a car. We talked about the relative value of money and prices, and she seemed to understand a lot more than I would expect for her age.
Sarah is 4. Her mother homeschools her older brother and teaches quite a bit to Sarah that surprised me. By the time we finished our brief discussion of money, she came and showed me letters on the magazines in the checkout line.
“Letters work different from numbers,” she told me confidently, apparently in the belief that no one had ever taught me this. She then started showing me a game she had invented involving matching certain letters with other letters on other magazine covers. I’m not entirely sure I understood the rules of her game, because she was laughing too much as she tried to explain. She might have been making it up as she went, for all I know.
I don’t remember what she asked me that led me to do this, but I made up a story about how I had escaped from a mental institution and the doctors were out looking for me, liable to spot me any moment and take me away to give me shots to make me not be insane anymore.
Sarah liked this story, but she wasn’t entirely sure which parts — if any — to believe. So she made up her own version for herself. I never was clear who she was on the run from. In acting out the story, though, she was on the other side of the candy and magazine, peeking around the corners and then hiding. You’ve seen children do similar games a million times.
In describing Sarah’s play, I don’t mean to make it sound as though she was a loud brat out of control. She was bright and energetic and times, but always under control and never loud enough to be annoying. It was a delightful experience. For a few minutes, I was completely separated from the adult world that otherwise seems so real. I was immersed in her world — and I liked it.
As I’ve thought about what it felt like to play with this child for a very few minutes, I have trouble describing it. I come back to child-like, but that’s silly, because … well .. it’s like describing water as “wet.” There’s an innocent quality to real play from children, but it somehow goes beyond that. It’s a complete lack of self-consciousness and a complete faith that everything is ultimately working as it should. Even if there are temporary glitches and tears, they’re soon replaced — in most children — with the faith in normalcy and basic goodness.
In the Christian world, you sometimes hear people referring to “the faith of a child,” which is a very loose paraphrase of something Jesus said about which people are going to “inherit the kingdom.” But it’s not just religious faith that requires child-like faith. It’s faith in anything. The more you know — or the more you think you know — the more jaded you are and the less faith you have in anything or anybody. When you’re not able to have faith in something, it seems to make it harder for you to have faith in yourself or be happy with the world.
We all think we need love — and we do — but maybe even more than that, we need someone to have faith in us. We need someone to tell us that we’re special and that they’re going to believe in us — and they’re going to trust that practical things will work out. (At least for Christians, it amazes me how so many say they have faith, yet they ignore Jesus’ command in Matthew 6 not to worry about food and clothing for tomorrow. But as long as you give lip service to faith, it’s OK to act like the rest of the world, huh?)
So that’s what playing with Sarah made me think about. It made me think about what I have child-like faith about (and what I don’t) and who has blind faith in me (and who doesn’t). I’ve seen enough and experienced enough — and let myself fall in to the trap of fear so much — that I don’t have the faith to really play and experience life as a child does often enough. Sadly, I suspect that most people do even less play and have even less faith — but are completely unaware of it.
After Sarah and I had played a few minutes Wednesday night, it was finally time for her to go. As her mother pried her away to head out to the car, my new friend paid me the ultimate compliment. With a huge grin, she looked at me with her big hazel/green eyes and said to me, “You’re crazy — like me!”