I have reached a strange point in my life. When little old ladies at church want to compliment my observation skills, they no longer say, “That Erica is wise beyond her years.” They just call me wise.
What does it mean for someone to be wise beyond their years?
When do they reach the mysterious tipping point where the pile of wisdom in their soul is proportional to the burden of years that their body lugs around?
I am going to cut to the chase and say that I find absolutely nothing helpful about the phrase “wise beyond her years.” Or his years. Or its years. The pronoun isn’t what has my hackles up.
The hackle-raising part for me is what this phrase implies.
By cooing this at a six-year-old who has said something precocious, we are not complimenting him or in any other way helping him. Yes, it is fulfilling and satisfying to be called wise, but why the tag at the end? Why do we have to qualify our statement? Can’t we just say that the kid is wise and be done with it? Oh, you’re so full of wisdom; too bad there are only a few shining stars in your generation who can produce such witty or thoughtful statements as you.
Quite a few of the times I received that compliment were because I spent a significant amount of time reading books when growing up. If it had text, I would read it. Shampoo bottles, marriage advice books, do-it-yourself tips, parenting advice, and the Encyclopedia Britannica were my closest friends. Because of this, and because of my obnoxious self-awareness (due to the parenting books and personality analysis tomes), I was able to cock my head, purse my lips, and deliver in a dovelike voice a piece of advice straight out of Please Understand Me or a quip from Calvin and Hobbes. The adults around me would either hoot and grin or sit back with big eyes and look at me silently.
It was a great game.
Those friends, those self-help books, helped me say a bunch of apropo things that earned me respect as child wise beyond her years. That was not wisdom. That was a game, like I said. I was, whether consciously or subconsciously, manipulating the adults around me.
I am not saying that children who read those kinds of books or who funnel second-hand wisdom are not wise, or that reading those books will not eventually make them wise. I merely state that children who sound like a psychologist may have a good reason for that other than their precocious observations on life.
At the same time, there were plenty of things that I said that just popped out of nowhere that had the same effect. Being less than four feet tall is an advantage sometimes. People underestimate you.
And that, dear friends, is my point. By telling children that they are wise beyond their years, we are essentially saying that we do not value what people their age have to say.
I don’t know about you, but I have met plenty of eight-year-olds who are a far sight wiser than some 40-year-olds I have seen.
Wisdom does not imply that they know many facts, or that they can drive a stick shift, or that they know how to rewind a videotape.
Age has absolutely nothing to do with the wisdom of these individuals. The 40-year-old has probably learned to behave in public, whereas the eight-year-old may not have those rules down pat. The 40-year-old probably has developed ways to hide or coping mechanisms for his or her foolish behavior, whereas the eight-year-old’s foolish decisions are most likely obvious to the family or even to the general public.
Who are we, then — we who sit alone in our car at the McDonald’s drive-thru and turn to the imaginary kids in the backseat to offer them each a McFlurry — we who sit in the kitchen and cradle our head in our hands as we clutch the bottle ever closer — we who sit silently in the bathroom with the door locked, jaw clenched as we are once again sure that we can feel pain — who are we to tell a young child that older people are the wise ones?
I am now at the point where I am considered wise, not wise beyond my years. Maybe it’s because I finally learned how to dress myself well. Maybe it’s because I’m done going through puberty. Maybe it’s because I have partaken in social rituals like graduating high school and attending college. Maybe it’s because of the 2-inch growth spurt that happened when I stopped eating gluten.
Or maybe it is just because I am conventionally no longer a child, and we know children are foolish creatures.
It is time to stop looking down on people because they are young. The next time a child wants to say something, listen to him or her. They might say something wise. They might say they need to pee.
Goodness knows that our children will not grow up to be wise if we do not actively listen and engage in conversation and read with them and encourage them. I would venture to say that in addition to that, if we convince our children that they are wise beyond their years, they will begin to see childhood as a foolish time.
I do not believe that foolishness is God’s plan for childhood. The book of Proverbs states that a wise child listens to the reprimands of his parents. How many adults do you know who listen to reprimands? Adults who truly seek to understand the fault in themselves, the damage it has caused to those around them, and the advice being offered of how to change?
I know that I deeply struggle with being criticized, and I suspect that most of the human race does.
Children are not wise beyond their years. They are not entirely wise, and they are not entirely foolish. They are in a continual process of changing and maturing in ways they cannot yet understand. As are we all.
I hope that as you go through today, you actively think about the way you respond to criticism. Slow down. Say a quick prayer for strength. And above all, pray for wisdom, because God has promised to give wisdom freely to all that ask for it and do not doubt.