Adora Svitak: What Wisdom Can Adults Learn From Kids? When Adora Svitak was 12, she gave a TED Talk on what grownups can learn from children. Now at age 18, and a sophomore at UC Berkeley, Svitak reflects on the message she shared.
NPR logo

What Wisdom Can Adults Learn From Kids?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/481293037/481419940" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Wisdom Can Adults Learn From Kids?

What Wisdom Can Adults Learn From Kids?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/481293037/481419940" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So maybe wisdom isn't something that's out of reach until we're older. Maybe, in fact, wisdom is something we can all tap into from a very early age.

ADORA SVITAK: Every time I talk to a kid, honestly, I feel a little bit - I'm often shocked by how much insightful stuff they have to say and also how uninhibited they are to say it.

RAZ: This is Adora Svitak. She goes to college in California. She's also a published writer and speaker. And she is 18 years old. But years ago, when Adora was 12, she was just another kid. And she was noodling on an idea that made perfect sense to her.

SVITAK: We have this vision of smarts or of wisdom as kind of this old sage in a tower with a long beard - it's kind of my image anyway - who just dispenses wisdom and advice in the pages of some crinkly parchment book.

RAZ: So Adora thought, any confident 12-year-old might, I should give a TED Talk about this - about the wisdom of kids. And because she was pretty good with a computer...

SVITAK: I actually ended up looking up who the folks were at TED who made decisions about speaker lineup. And I was able to send an email off to the curator and to some other folks just in the leadership. And they actually responded. And they were intrigued. They said that they would think about it, which is, you know, a polite way of saying no, right? But then...

RAZ: A couple weeks before that year's conference - this is in 2010...

SVITAK: They called up and said, hey, we know this is short notice, but we have an opening. And it was like, OK, yeah. Of course (laughter).

RAZ: So when we come back in just a minute, 12-year-old Adora Svitak's TED Talk on the wisdom of kids and how 18-year-old Adora feels about it today. I'm Guy Raz. On the show today, ideas about becoming wise. Stay with us. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about what it means to become wise. And as 12-year-old Adora Svitak explained in her TED Talk from 2010, being wise and being old are not necessarily the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SVITAK: Now I wanted to start with a question - when was the last time you were called childish? For kids like me, being called childish can be a frequent occurrence. Every time we make irrational demands, exhibit irresponsible behavior or display any other signs of being normal American citizens, we are called childish, which really bothers me.

After all, take a look at these events - imperialism and colonization, world wars - ask yourself - who is responsible? Adults.

(LAUGHTER)

SVITAK: Now, what have kids done? Well, Anne Frank touched millions with her powerful account of the Holocaust. Ruby Bridges helped end segregation in the United States. And most recently, Charlie Simpson helped to raise 120,000 pounds for Haiti on his little bike.

So as you can see, evidence by such examples - age has absolutely nothing to do with it. The traits the world childish addresses are seen so often in adults that we should abolish this age discriminatory word when it comes to criticizing behavior associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking.

(APPLAUSE)

SVITAK: Thank you. Then again, who's to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren't exactly what the world needs?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: OK. So Adora, that was you six years ago. And as we mentioned, you are 18 now. And you still travel around to schools and stuff talking about this idea. So what do you think adults can learn from kids?

SVITAK: I think that adults can learn from kids a reminder to not take themselves too seriously. Sometimes I feel like we don't interact with each other in a way that's real and in a way that's honest.

And little kids running around outside playing tag - in some ways, I'm very jealous of them because they have that real kind of interaction down. It's kids who can really lighten a room and remind us that we're all kind of just monkeys in suits, you know? And (laughter)...

RAZ: Yeah.

SVITAK: ...I love that about kids. I'd also say that that's a kind of fundamental honesty. And honesty, first and foremost, is a necessity for wisdom. You have to be able to confront what you see and tell it like it is. And I think that the naivety that kids often bring can lead to a willingness to just jump out there and do things that we don't have as much when we're scared of being judged.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, there's, like, a moment when a kid kind of shifts into kind of adopting more of an adult-like worldview. But before that, like, it's almost like we can recapture our sense of wonder.

SVITAK: I think that that's so true. Actually, I was thinking a little while ago about the way that I talk to my sister. And sometimes - I don't know if this is something that all siblings who are close to each other do - but we'll just - we'll revert to our kind of 3 and 5-year-old selves and just make funny faces at each other and dance around.

And what those moments remind me of is how much I think there exists within everyone - the most intelligent, the most serious people - there can be this very lighthearted wonder and this ability to play. And that's something that can enrich anyone's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SVITAK: Maybe you've had grand plans before but stopped yourself, thinking that's impossible or that costs too much or that won't benefit me. For better or worse, we kids aren't hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things.

Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry or that everything were free - kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities?

Sometimes, a knowledge of history and the past failures of utopian ideals can be a burden because you know that if everything were free, then the food stocks would become depleted and scarce and lead to chaos.

On the other hand, we kids still dream about perfection. And that's a good thing because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When you see yourself giving this talk at - you know, like, at 12 years old, are you surprised at how much confidence you - like, you had back then?

SVITAK: I'd say that I'm not so much surprised at the confidence that I had then as much as how fast it goes. Now when I give a talk or when I am writing something to post online, or even when I'm just speaking to a very small group of people, I feel a lot more sense of judgment and, I guess, appreciation of complexity, which is good. But also, that can be an extremely paralyzing thing.

RAZ: Yeah, it's crazy. Like, when we're kids, we're not - we have no worry about being judged. We just get up there and do our thing. And then, like, in a short period of time - like, by the time we reach our teens and then our 20s, like, that's when we're, like, constantly worrying about those things.

SVITAK: Yeah, it's so true. I think that as we get older, the world starts demanding more in the way of qualifications from us. We have to have these line items on our resume. We have to continually be explaining why we deserve to be here.

And whether it's college or a job or whatever else, those demands just seem to get bigger and bigger. But when you're a kid, you can be anywhere you want to be just because you want to be, unless someone says, oh, you're too small or you're too little or you're not qualified.

But I think that what I said in my TED Talk really spoke to the power of being able to just walk into a room and say, hey, I'm a kid. Listen to what I have to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SVITAK: Our inherent wisdom doesn't have to be insider's knowledge. Kids already do a lot of learning from adults. And we have a lot to share. Learning between grown-ups and kids should be reciprocal. The reality, unfortunately, is a little different. And it has a lot to do with trust or a lack of it.

Now, if you don't trust someone, you place restrictions on them, right? If I doubt my older sister's ability to pay back the 10 percent interest I established on her last loan, I'm going to withhold her ability to get more money from me until she pays it back.

(LAUGHTER)

SVITAK: True story, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

SVITAK: Now, adults seem to have a prevalently restrictive attitude towards kids from every - don't do that, don't do this in the school handbook, to restrictions on school internet use. As history points out, regimes become oppressive when they're fearful about keeping control.

And although adults may not be quite at the level of totalitarian regimes, kids have no or very little say in making the rules, when really, the attitude should be reciprocal, meaning that the adult population should learn and take into account the wishes of the younger population.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Yeah, I remember that feeling being 12, you know, or 13 and feeling like there were all of these rules that adults were setting for us. And I didn't really have the tools to articulate why I thought those rules were so stupid, you know? But knew that there was something I needed to say.

SVITAK: I think that a lot of parents kind of forget what it's like to be a kid. And it's easy to have this amnesia about what you were like when you were in second grade or what you were like when you were an awkward teenager with acne and - who was just trying to get a date to prom - I think a part of our lives that we might even try to forget as we get older.

But it's so important to remember the yearning for someone to listen to you - for someone to take you seriously. And when I talk to my little cousins, who are - one of them is 5. And I ask her these questions. And I realize that she has very deep answers, and she's extremely perceptive.

There's so much under the surface. I think that kids are often kind of like icebergs, in the sense that if all we do is - we read them a story or we ask them how their day was, like, we only get a little bit of it.

But once we start kind of looking for more, we start asking them questions about bigger issues. We can find so much that is under the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Adora Svitak. She's now a student at UC Berkeley. You can watch her full talk at ted.com.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.