Imagine going to work and this happening: A coworker spots you, smiles, screams your name, and runs at you full force, colliding in a bear hug. Next, he or she, reaches up and gently takes your hat off, hanging it on a hook with your name on it. He or she then assists you in tugging your coat off, places that on your hook as well, and the two of you sprint off gleefully to get lattes.

This is what many mornings are like for my son when he arrives at daycare. Just swap “coworker” for “best buddy” and “lattes” for “Lego cars.”

The first time my son’s classmate greeted him this way, I was so charmed by the entire unself-conscious display that I told a friend the story. The friend made a cute joke, “What? Is that kid you son’s butler?”

I’ve repeated the joke. It’s a good line. I also like the idea of my son being some sort of Polar Bear Room aristocrat. Who wouldn’t?

But after a few retellings it stopped sitting well. I realized what’s wrong with the joke, and with my frequent repetitions of it: It’s emblematic of everything I hate about adulthood.

Why do we have to make fun of being genuinely glad and helpful? Why is it weird to assist someone in such a tangible way without any money changing hands?

To be clear, toddlers are terrible role models in lots of other areas, such as:

  • Bowel control
  • Voice regulation
  • Hygiene
  • Mastery of temper
  • Time management
  • Utensils

The list goes on.

But in this one, area, I really think they’ve got us beat. It’s hard to wrap my head around, since I’ve often referred to toddlers as walking egos.

How is it that they are still able to pull off these unrivaled feats of chivalry? And if they can do it, why can’t we?

My son does it all the time (in the moments when he’s not being a tiny totalitarian dictator and demanding his banana be cut into perfect 1/16s): helping my husband and I take our shoes off, comforting our dog when she’s scared in the car, rubbing our backs with the soft words, “I feel you all better.”

Maybe this dichotomy is possible because toddler brains are so in tune with the basics in our hierarchy of needs: food, warmth, shelter, and comfort. They see providing those for others as a clear means of expressing themselves, without considering any hidden messages about what their actions mean for their own feelings of prestige and social acceptance.

While I won’t be bear-hugging my coworkers any time soon, I am going to model my toddler in valuing the simple gifts and gestures I often ignore or take for granted: smiles, handshakes, hugs — hell… eye contact — the basic human being stuff that is getting harder and harder to see, as I peer beyond the soft glow of my iPhone.