What were you like when you were four years old? Sugar and spice and all things nice? Or frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails? Were you the cowboy rounding up everyone else for games or the policewoman keeping all the other children in line with a wagging finger? Were you the one found hiding quietly in the corner by yourself, creating an entirely new universe out of a stick and a cardboard cereal box, or were you that kid in the other corner, licking the special cake set aside for afternoon break when no one was looking – then pleading your innocence with all your might from a mouth covered in chocolate? Maybe you even kept mounds of worms in your pockets until they fossilised into one solid, wormy lump, like my dear friend Sebastian Winters. Maybe that was just Sebastian.
Well, there has been a sad lack of worms, but plenty of playing, bossing, creating, crying, laughing, licking and denial in one of the most recent series from Channel 4. In the opening episode of the glorious Secret Life of Four, Five and Six Year Olds, the nation was introduced to the delights of 12 nursery-aged children with the help of hidden cameras and a small team of inquisitive development psychologists
So here are Tia and Jack, getting to grips with learning to share a wheelbarrow (“I saw it first!” “No, I saw it first!” “Give it!” “Give it!” “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!”); Theo wooing Tyler into friendship (“Play with me! Play with me! I want to tell you something! I want to tell you something!”) and Connie, Tia and Lola playing the classic childhood ‘let’s pretend-to-be-princesses’ game, in which the subplot invariably is: “Let’s all choose someone to exclude.” Next up, an obstacle course race: Tia and Taylor against Lola and Ethan. The pressure is on, the clock is racing, there can only be one pair of winners. Tyres are hopped over, balance beams crossed and all of a sudden it’s Tia and Taylor being crowned King and Queen of the Obstacles. Cue jumping and rejoicing and then sudden chants of: “I beated Lola, I beated Lola!” as the victors laud their achievement over the losers. Lola, feeling the very real and brutal feelings of mockery and rejection, runs off on her own and cries. So far, so predictable. But what happens next is really a little miracle.
With a little help from a teacher, Tia and Tyler face the question: was that a very kind thing to do? Tia is adamant that she has no answer to this. But then, two minutes later, she whispers to Tyler: “The answer is, it’s not very kind. And we should say sorry.” Apologies are immediately dispensed and accepted and play resumes immediately, with all of the children jumping one on top of the other in a huge human stack of giggles.
All a typical day in the life of a four-year-old, you say, smile, and scan the web channels for your next 20-minutes of catch-up TV.
But there in the middle – did you spot it? The little miracle? The extraordinarily quick realisation of wrongdoing. The immediate ownership of this same wrongdoing, the decision to put it right, the almost instant execution of apologies and immediate forgiveness. No pride, no ego, no grudges held. Life continuing with fun, laughter and play, without a breath of recrimination or passive aggression. “That’s OK”, says Theo, “I’m going to let you two come to my house to have chocolate”.
How much we have to learn from these little ones. How adept we are at holding onto pain when offence is caused, how quick we can be to defend ourselves when accusation of wrongdoing – however justified – is brought to our door.
No wonder Jesus pointed to the little children, opened his arms, and said: “Let the little children come,” and explained that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”.
The child development psychologists observing the children offer an additional insight: “The saving grace of being four is that you live in the moment. Things are so quickly forgotten and moved on from.”
Henri Nouwen, Dutch priest, writer and theologian, once wrote: “Real life takes place in the here and now. God is a God of the present. God is always in the present moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful,” and that: “We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a new opportunity to make everything new.”
Adult relationships can of course be much harder to navigate than those of a four-year-old, and sometimes the hope of seeing all things made new can seem light years away. But oh for a childlike spirit today that will help us live in the present, open to saying sorry quickly, and forgiving quickly, and knowing better the God who is slow to anger, rich in love, king of forgiveness, the one who “makes all things new” – to therefore reap the fruit of such actions in restored relationships and the joy of the present moment. Especially if that means an extra long session of playing in the garden, with a grand finale of eating chocolate together – even if it has been licked already.