Chaplain’s Corner: Lessons From My Toddler

Anne Myers

My daughter, Zaynab, just had her second birthday a couple weeks ago. If you’ve spent any time with a toddler (or, let’s be real, even been in the vicinity of a toddler), you know that they are balls of pure energy, always on the go and leaving adults wondering how on earth they have so much stamina. Along with this big energy comes big emotions; one minute a toddler is happily playing, and the next minute they’re flailing on the ground, shrieking for no conceivable reason. As developmentally appropriate as this all is, being present and helping children manage their emotions can be exhausting and disheartening. It’s literally not that serious, I often find myself thinking when Zaynab is having what seems like her 89th tantrum of the day. Why can’t you just be calm and stop treating everything like it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened? 

A couple days ago, as we were about to enter our back door after an outing, our next door neighbor came out to their backyard with their dog, Trixie. Zaynab walked over to the fence and reached out to Trixie, who promptly greeted her and licked her hands. Our neighbor began throwing a ball for Trixie to catch, and as Zaynab watched, she let out squeals of glee. Although she has her moments of screaming fits, Zaynab has a very cheerful disposition and smiles and laughs often. However, this was an expression of pure joy, as if she was experiencing the very best life had to offer here in that moment. 

I found myself reflecting on that interaction later on that day. Besides delighting in how adorable Zaynab was, I felt gratitude that she was able to find so much happiness in such a simple thing as watching a dog play fetch. I also thought about how I, as an adult, found it so much more difficult to take such joy in simple pleasures, instead letting myself get distracted and jaded by the monotony, harshness, and cruelty of life. Seeing this contrast admittedly made me feel some wistful sadness about the passage of life, this transition from carefree childhood to hardened adulthood that seems inevitable. 

But how inevitable is it? Are we really doomed to all be contemptuous, or at least somewhat cynical, without the joie de vivre of youth? There is an Islamic concept called fitrah that has several meanings, one of which refers to the idea of one’s “innate disposition” or “basic human nature,” with the implication that this is a person’s “purest form.” All people are believed to be born “on the fitrah,” with an inclination to goodness and seeking the truth. From an Islamic theological standpoint, by worshiping God, doing what is right, and avoiding what is wrong, one is acting according to their basic state. Even though children generally lack the life experience and more sophisticated intellect of adults, they still maintain this fitrah of goodness that hasn’t been corrupted or damaged by things like greed, selfishness, envy, or spite. Looking at things from this lens, we should in fact be striving to embrace this child-like state rather than leaving it behind. 

So yes, toddlers do feel their feelings deeply. Although I don’t intend to throw myself to the ground screaming when I’m feeling upset, perhaps it would do me good to allow myself to really approach and be present with my uncomfortable feelings. Likewise, letting down my inhibitions and fully embracing joyful moments, rather than being “immature,” can be a way for me to connect to my fitrah. These things might not come as easy to me as they do to Zaynab, but getting more in touch with my fitrah may be the emotional and spiritual nourishment I need in my adult life.

Anne Myers is the Interfaith Fellow at the College.