Children’s Wisdom

by Ray Grigg

The innocent clarity of children’s awareness has long been recognized as being profoundly wise. Indeed, this wisdom is venerated in many cultures, traditions and philosophies. “Unless ye… become as little children ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). The quest for enlightenment in Eastern traditions is often described as a return to the innocence of childhood. The simple elegance of children’s insights is also a common aspiration of artists.

Growing up, it seems, is a growing away from these admirable qualities — the methodical loss of something crucially important and the dimming of a special light. In 1888, the poet, William Wordsworth, wrote in his Ode on Intimations of Immortality: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy; Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows. He sees it in his joy… . At length the man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day.”

So, what is lost by fading into this “common day” of adulthood? And what are the implications of forgetting the child’s “clouds of glory”?

This question is illuminated by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka in an essay, “Zoos and Circuses” (Globe and Mail, May 6/16). They posit that the “hidden curriculum” of such places is “to inculcate children away from interspecies empathy and into an ideology of species superiority and entitlement.” Arguably, such a pervasive cultural attitude becomes the foundation of our environmental insensitivity.

Before this inculcation, the writers explain, “young children naturally recognize animals as fully minded and intentional beings, with their own lives to lead.” Studies by psychologists reveal that “animals are central to the social and psychological world of children, objects of love and fascination when awake, and populating dreams at night. Children don’t recognize a human-nonhuman hierarchy; they recognize animals as their friends, neighbours, family members — and equals.”

This awareness comes very close to describing the idealized state of mind we call enlightenment, pure consciousness, saintliness, an unconditional acceptance of the natural world as an undifferentiated wholeness composed of “equals”. Species are not judged or compared by moral or utilitarian values. Each and every thing is its own astounding self, a living miracle existing only in the service of its own being.

As Donaldson and Kymlicka note, “ Children don’t need to be educated to respect and love animals. On the contrary, to accept the ways [in which] our society eats and exploits animals, children should be educated to stop caring about them. Zoos and circuses are part of this education.”

Arguably, our entire culture is actively engaged in adulterating the innocent clarity of fresh young minds. Children, it could be said, are born as mystics and perfect environmentalists, radiantly aware of the stunning and marvellous beauty of things being just as they are — before we so sadly and brutally put everything to our uses.