When I arrived at the house to look after Jasmine, a seven-year-old, she was bawling her eyes out. I asked this usually-bubbly kid what was wrong and she shared an epic story of heartbreak and betrayal: her classmate didn’t want to marry her.
I started to feel worried about her; she was totally crushed. But then something miraculous happened: right between sobs, Jasmine started doing somersaults on the sofa, and in literally minutes, she was giggling. Just like that, she was over it.
I have wasted years getting over the intensity of heartbreak! I wondered what my life would be like if I relearned these kid tools of play and presence. Then I wondered: what else could I learn from listening to kids?
I decided to find out by doing a theatre project in which I interviewed kids. I figured that most of us adults are not the best at taking kids seriously, so instead of putting the kids on stage, I came up with a theatrical experiment: in CHILD-ish, adult actors will speak kids’ exact words. The actors will not pretend to be kids—they will simply be adults trying out kids’ words and ideas for an adult audience. I was curious how it might change our listening if grown-ups became kids’ megaphones.
During over 100 interviews with 41 kids, I got way more than a primer on how to handstand my way through heartbreak.
I brushed up on unicorn lore. I heard from Miranda* how popular stories could be improved: “Lord of the Rings would be better if the horse turned into a unicorn and said, ‘You shouldn’t be sexist. Let the women come on the journey.’” I was schooled by Joe in how to assess someone’s personality based on what sort of dog they have. I got a crash-course in dealing with anxiety, learning from techniques like Arjun’s: “I hug Mitsy and Rover. They’re the family pet dogs. It makes me feel better because they’re soft. Rugs are soft as well, but pets actually care about you.” I absorbed ideas for surviving late-stage capitalism, like how much more efficient it would be to run a household if four people married each other instead of two.
But one of the deepest things I learned was about the value and practice of radical hope. Many of us grown-ups rely on children to reignite our sense of hope and possibility, while simultaneously dismissing them as naïve. But what I found out is that children’s hope does not stem from a lack of awareness about the hard stuff going on in the world. In the interviews, I was repeatedly shocked by how much kids knew—and that they seemed even more likely to be hopeful in the face of it.
When children brought up their anxiety about the climate during the interviews, I asked them if they thought we were going to make it. Jessie squinted their eyes and looked up towards the ceiling. I followed their gaze, but I couldn’t figure out what they were looking at. After a moment, they answered my question: “The unicorn is hopeful.”
It would be easy to write that off as a figment of imagination, ungrounded in knowledge of the real world. But in the scheme of everything there is to know about the universe, grown-ups also know very little. Recently, I sat next to a NASA physicist at a brunch in Los Angeles, and he invited us to ask him anything. Between mouthfuls of French toast, my partner asked a burning question: “How did time begin?” The physicist shook his head: “Oh, no one really knows.”
So what makes us think our assessments that we are doomed, and that we should not be hopeful, are accurate? For sure, we must listen to the warnings from scientists. This is not about denial; in fact, it is the exact opposite. It’s about not succumbing to inaction simply because our situation seems increasingly impossible. We may discover there are literally other dimensions in which hopeful unicorns exist, and they may be a key to addressing some of our most pressing problems.
To this end, adults could learn a lot from children’s comfort with not knowing. In fact, we could stand to shift our entire framework towards learning itself. Kids are in a constant state of learning: they expect to have to radically and rapidly shift their ideas about everything, from how to not burn the toast to how rainbows form. And they are mostly not precious about this process. Learning is normal. Not knowing is normal. Having a big, important vision and having no idea about how we will get there is totally normal. Taking the steps towards achieving it—trying stuff out—is normal. Course-correcting part way through is normal. This is exactly the sort of bold and un-self-conscious action we need.
Sunny Drake is a playwright. His latest show, “CHILD-ish”, has its world premiere February 9 to March 9 at Pacific Theatre.
*All children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.