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Kids help us age well

In the remaining months of this year and into the next, I encourage you to spend maximal time with small children. Intergenerational interaction is supported in research, and in everyday observation, as helping us age optimally.

Matt Kaplan at Penn State University explored the impact of intergenerational contact in a variety of settings and writes passionately about old-young interactions as “wisdom moments.” Sadly, encounters with children often happen less often as we move through life. Even if you’re grandparents, distance may separate, or busy schedules may mean fewer opportunities to interact.

I have a suggestion. If you see a playful group of children in a park, stop what you’re doing — even if it means pulling the car over or interrupting a daily walk. Watch as the children engage one another — try to be fully in the moment. If you are fortunate, a stray ball may roll your way, or a frolicking youngster may approach to ask you a question.

I saw it happen recently when an elderly woman was sitting on a bench in a local park. A small child tentatively walked toward her, clutching her mother’s hand, clearly wanting to ask if she could pet the woman’s dog. The elder saw her and smiled, focused on the child totally and reached out for a handshake in the way she might if meeting an adult. Then they both smiled — even the dog seemed to offer a smile in the form of its frantically wagging tail.

The woman introduced herself and her fluffy, squirmy little dog. The girl giggled. It was tender and wonderful. I am inclined to store up moments like that and pull them out when I need a little attitudinal adjustment. For example, if I’m having a hectic, too-busy day, I just think about our granddaughter, Sarah, when she was 5 years old.

During a visit with us, Sarah sang “Joy to the World.” She sang it all the time — with her head thrown back and one arm outstretched. She declared it was her “most favorite song.” She sang it in the backseat of the car. She sang it while playing with her worse-for-wear cardboard dolls. And she seemed to sing it with particular gusto whenever family tensions loomed. After all, we had 12 independently spirited people packed into our not-all-that-big home for one festive, rainy week. But it was a good family time, made better by the presence of children of all ages.

After the visit, I remember receiving an email message from Sarah’s mom that said, “Thank you for the great visit it is worth noting Sarah has taken to singing ‘Joy to the World’ with her hand over her heart. She says it ‘helps the love get out.’”

Find a sweet and special memory or a recollected moment that involves a child. Very young children are particularly good at eliciting happiness and good will, but children of any age will do. Borrow my Sarah story if you like. Pull it out when you find you need a little more joy in your world.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharon@rbtrv.org.