The Marvel of Wonder in Children

[Promote hope, will, & competence]

Nora Bond

Wondering is my favorite activity with children. The way their whole bodies turn to marvel at a fire truck, a slug, or a beam of rainbow light – it brings me such joy. When I worked in a classroom, I often secretly added “Wonder Counselor” to my job title; I love facilitating the magic that is childhood exploration.

Children’s experimentation is a welcome sign that they are engaging their minds and integrating their environments in learning. Particularly, very young children between 1 and 3 years are building their understanding of self. With every independent activity they attempt, they are asking,

  • “What am I capable of doing by myself?”

Perhaps you recognize this in children – they really want to do a puzzle alone, or they refuse a snack just to see what will happen. Children exercise their will and try to understand what boundaries they can and cannot overcome. Caregivers support this exploration when they consistently balance intervening and stepping back.

It sounds like a simple concept, but as caregivers you know how confusing and tiring this can be. When you’re trying to get out the door, sometimes there isn’t time to let the two-year-old practice putting on shoes and a coat. This summer, I was trying to get Danny and Eli back to the house for lunch, and Eli stopped to observe an anthill. “Where are they going? What do they eat? Do they all have the same name?” he asked me as I tried to gently coax him into walking.

The constant experimentation, testing, and wondering of childhood can truly test a caregiver’s patience, even when we understand the importance of children exercising their will. Until recently, I hadn’t made the distinction between patience and understanding, but the clarity gave me a jolt of insight.

In her article Patience or Understanding? Nancy Weber Schwartz explains that a patient teacher bears unpleasant circumstances calmly, but is fueled by willpower and determination. In other words, the teacher’s patience is waiting for a different set of circumstances to occur, and when you rely on patience there is always that possibility of it running out. Understanding, on the other hand, is a true partnership between a teacher and the child. The understanding teacher begins with awareness of the individual child’s needs and builds appropriate expectations around that. This helps children sense their needs are being met, which improves the trust – and thus, partnership – between teacher and child.

For example, the patient teacher asks a three-year-old to sit still, and waits, and waits, and waits… until he does. An understanding teacher knows three-year-olds can hardly sit still and creates movement activities instead. And, if it is important for the child to sit still? An understanding teacher explains to the child why s/he must sit still and will make it as brief and engaging as possible. What’s the difference?

  • The patient teacher is imposing.
  • The understanding teacher is partnering.
  • The patient teacher is asking first.
  • The understanding teacher is giving first.

How, then, can we cultivate this same ability of understanding in ourselves? How can we become a more understanding caregiver to young children?

Understanding individuals can meet others’ needs so willingly because first understand their own needs. They can embrace others fully because they welcome themselves fully first. They have a self-awareness for their own capacities, weaknesses, and boundaries, and thus they can support these more clearly – and compassionately – in others.

On that long summer walk with Danny and Eli, I found myself heavy on patience and light on understanding. It was a hot day – the kind of hot that sticks to your clothes and leaves you feeling uncomfortably heavy. Even though I knew Eli was just indulging his curiosity, I was sweaty and hungry. His charming questions about ants would normally delight me, but my patience was running out. When this happens, it’s easy to react out of frustration – frustration with Eli’s slow pace, but also frustration with myself. Why wasn’t I being the caregiver I like to be?

I took a deep breath to give myself a moment for self-awareness. I realized my needs weren’t being met either. I was hungry, dehydrated, and overheated. I was trying to push through my own discomfort – I was being determinedly patient with myself and it helped no one. However, when I accessed my understanding, I saw that this situation was frustrating because I didn’t have what I needed. I understood, and understanding invited self-compassion.

Your needs as a caregiver are just as real as a child’s. There is no shame in having needs. Just as we access understanding to give children love and acceptance, we can access it for ourselves. When our cups are full, it’s much easier to fill the cups of others. Truly respecting and meeting children’s many needs starts with truly respecting our own. SUNKISSED FAMILIES Contributor Julianne Lenehan discusses beautifully in her blog All Things in Motion her Thoughts on Being Mothered, “So long as we are giving love,” she explains, “we must remember to receive it as well.”

Developing our own self-awareness and affirmation can be a lasting gift to the children we care for. When we model acceptance and respect for our needs – mental, social, physical, spiritual, and emotional – we are demonstrating regard for ourselves. Children and adolescents who are coming to know themselves and their capabilities benefit enormously from role models who understand and enact this.

As I stood on that hot sidewalk and allowed myself compassionate understanding, I immediately felt better. Nothing about the situation had outwardly changed. But inwardly, I now felt capable of calm action – not frustrated reaction.

I knelt next to Eli to explain in terms he’d understand, “Eli buddy, can we talk about this at home? My body is tired and hungry.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said and stood up. As he walked along side me he asked. “Nora, do ants ever wear clothes?”

“Hmmm,” I said with a grin. “I’m not sure Eli. Let’s wonder about it over lunch.”


Nora Bond
Center for Courage and Renewal


  • 1. Nurturing a child’s healthy sense of autonomy and exploration helps promote their sense of will – they need it to learn and grow. Allowing children to explore and question is one of our responsibilities as caregivers – but it can be tiring too!
  • 2. Patience requires willpower and endurance. When you are feeling frustrated or “at the end of your chain” remember you are relying on your patience and waiting for an outcome you envision. These are moments to pause and think, “What are the child’s needs? What can I do to help?”
  • 3. Be aware of your own needs as an individual and as a caregiver and tend to them. Modeling a healthy awareness of our needs can set a wonderful example for the children you care for.
  • 4. Delaying your needs is an inherent part of caregiving, but denying them can quickly become an unhealthy habit. Remember that, just like the children you care for, your needs are worth meeting. An understanding person cultivates self-awareness and self-compassion.


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