What Adults Can Learn From Kids

The Teacher Becomes the Student

A few weeks ago, after my usual morning ritual, I dived into checking the usual: email, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. As I scrolled down Twitter, my jaw dropped. There I saw a Buzzfeed article and on it was a picture of a group of my former students. They reimagined the Disney princesses and did a modern take on what they would be like during this moment in history. I’m not surprised, to be honest. During my two years of being their teacher, they gave me a different perspective on many different topics. Most teachers will tell you that they learn as much from their students as their students do from them. It’s cliché, but true. After leaving teaching at the end of last school year, it has given me much time to reflect on many things, but there is one core message that has stuck with me: be more like children.

Our Inner Child

What I just said goes against everything we are told growing up. Right? They say you have to be more "adultlike", but after all of my years of teaching, I find the opposite to be true. Recently, I was watching an interview that the famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan did on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. He was there to talk about his new book, The Dragons of Eden, but there was something that he explained about children that impacted me profoundly. He said, “The thing that I find most striking is the enormous, remarkable capability of virtually every small child for learning. They start out eager, intellectually, wide-eyed, asking extremely clever questions about the world.” He’s right. Kids asking about why the sky is blue or why the earth is round are extremely profound questions. However, it is often the adult’s reaction that discourages the child from continuing in the pursuit of finding the answers.  

Photo by  Alexis Brown

Photo by Alexis Brown

Why do we react like this as adults? Both parents and teachers alike often brush off questions like this because we’re tired, malnourished, stressed, etc. I know I have, in moments when I’d felt overwhelmed, but I've always tried to recognize it in the moment. These were teachable moments for me because in being honest and transparent with my students by saying, “I’m sorry if I was a bit impatient earlier. I didn’t get a good night of sleep and it's made me a bit cranky today. I apologize for ignoring your question. Let’s finish this task first and we’ll circle back and answer any questions you might still have after”. In saying this I was both showing students that adults make mistakes too and that it’s ok to acknowledge them and apologize. For me, it was about showing them that it’s ok to be vulnerable and that it’s important to develop self-awareness.

Be the Adults Our Kids Think We Are

These were also learning moments for me too. Much like Carl Sagan expressed, kids often provide a deeper perspective with the questions they ask. In that same interview, he explains:

I think kids who are discouraged from asking those questions wind up learning the lesson that there’s something bad about using the mind and we lose resources. And we need those intellectual resources because we are in very perilous times. And I think that the complex and subtle problems that we face can only have complex and subtle solutions. And we need people able to think complex and subtle thoughts. [...] I believe a great many children have that capability if only they’re encouraged.
— Carl Sagan

I can’t tell the countless times that students asked questions that left me STUMPED. I was not embarrassed to look at them and say, “I have no idea. Let’s look it up as a class and find out!” because you’re giving them a space to cultivate their curiosity. As adults, when we enter a conversation and we have no idea what anyone is talking about, we are so afraid of just saying, "I'm not familiar with that topic. Can you tell me more about it?" We don't want to look uninformed or clueless, but if we were just honest, it would allow for real discussions to take place, even when it comes to hot-button issues.

People often ask me how it is that I stay so positive during such tumultuous times. Part of it comes from my own outlook and disposition in life, but a good chunk of credit goes to all of the kids I’ve taught over the years. Their capacity to be empathetic and compassionate is out of this world. During my years of teaching in Spain, I taught students from 3-18 years old. All of the kids were super joyful when I’d walk into class. But I had one class of 1st graders that when I think of them, they still give me heart eyes.

The Little Ones

When you're an English teaching assistant in Spain, you're expected to only speak to the students in English and pretend that you don’t speak Spanish. Why? Because the kids will only speak to you in Spanish if they realize they can! This class would all run up to me and give me a group hug and start telling me about their day (in Spanish). After a few moments of me looking at them as if I didn’t understand them, they would run up to their teacher and ask them how to say certain phrases in English, so that I could understand them better. I’ll never forget the group of three students that saw me when I walked in one day, ran up to their teacher, and then back to me and said, “Your hair is so beautiful today!” I had straightened it. So observant, these little ones.

My hearrrrrrt

My hearrrrrrt

The Not-so-little Ones

That kindness and empathy are not just unique to little kids. I had a family crisis back home in California when I was living in Madrid. After spending the night crying myself to sleep, I walked into my freshman high school class with very little energy. The kids were rowdy, the computer was acting glitchy, and then the projector went out. I turned to the class and calmly said, “I understand that you’re tired and hungry since it’s right before lunchtime. But, I’m having a hard time today because my family is going through something back home and I can’t be there for them. I promise if you just give me forty minutes of your undivided attention to get through this lesson, I will let you out a few minutes early.” The class went silent.

My 4th of ESO Dual girls

My 4th of ESO Dual girls

I wondered if I'd gone too far. There are many cultural differences between Spain and the U.S., especially in the classroom. Teachers in the U.S. are much more keen on incorporating that social-emotional component of teaching than in Spain. The kids participated, all the while staring at me with looks of concern. When the bell rang, the entire class came up to give me a group hug. Both the guys and the girls were asking me what was wrong back home, several of the girls wiped the tears from my face. At that moment, I was crying more for how they responded to my vulnerability, rather than what I was going through. The kindness they showed me made me realize how great our capacity for love is and how we begin to restrict it as we get older.

This had finally been the opportunity to teach the group I had always wanted: high school students. Though I was teaching in Madrid, the students expected the same as those in the states. They want to be treated like emerging adults. They challenged me to make lessons that were fun and thought-provoking. I learned the power of patience, attentiveness, and active listening. I learned about feeling out the energy in the room and allowing that to be the leading force in my teaching. The truth is this group of students changed everything for me and I was certain I wanted to head back to the States to teach high school students. To my surprise, I ended up teaching middle school.

Teaching Middle School

Believe it or not, the greatest lessons I’ve learned have come from having been a middle school teacher. Let me tell you something… when you tell people you were a middle school teacher, they thank you for your service. That is a battlefield no one wants to go near, not even parents of middle schoolers! There’s a reason that when you say middle school, people get goosebumps like they just sensed Sasquatch approaching. Middle school is ROUGH; there is no doubt about that. It’s probably one of the most challenging stages of our lives, yet I can honestly say without skipping a beat, that being a middle school teacher made me the best version of myself.

Much like the students before them, my middle school students taught me more than they’ll ever know. But probably the most surprising thing they taught me is to not be afraid of being myself. The fact of the matter is that these kids are looking for guidance. They’re looking for permission to love themselves, in spite of their flaws. As adults, we have the tendency to lean towards pretending. We put on a mask that says everything is fine, even when it’s not. Kids can see right through that, especially middle schoolers. We help to perpetuate those old paradigms and they grow up learning that they have to suppress their feelings, suck it up, and soldier on.

Lessons Learned

What we need now more than ever is people who are willing to show our kids what being human is all about, that vulnerability. The next time you’re upset over something you saw on the news and they ask why you’re sad, don’t brush it off. Talk to them about it. Their capacity to understand is much greater than we give them credit for. We are living in a time where division is prominent. The connections between us have been severed; people are craving that humanity. I believe that if we nurture our kids’ ability to be empathetic, curious, and authentic, we might find that they have the solutions we are yearning for.


Have you ever learned anything like this from your kids? In which ways do you cultivate their curiosity and empathy?