01 March 2008

The Pitter-Patter ot Little Feet

For a long time in my life, children were mere miniature adults, every bit as cryptic and cagey as their grown-up creators.
My brother was born in 1986. He is seven years younger than I, and I took every second I could to enjoy him as a baby. It was the first time I’d been close to a newborn, and I realized his perfection was a miracle, even at that young age. In time, he grew from infant to toddler to child to teenager. My time with him was, for a long time, the last constant exposure I’d had to being around an infant/young child. Whatever I’d learned when it came to children had long since buried itself by the time I reached adulthood. For a long time, I never knew what to do around kids. If I tried to act foolish and entertain them, they would treat me as exactly that: a fool who couldn’t entertain them. Unlike adults, children do not know how to be gracious and apply the white lies that adults use to grease social wheels on a regular basis (I.e. - “You look great!,” “No, it’s not trouble,” “Yes, it was good for me too!”). Children call it as they see it simply because they don’t know better.
I remember realizing this a few years ago when I was in a Chinese restaurant. As our food was still being prepared, my friend and I waited out in the lobby. A small boy, probably a relative of the owners, sat with us and engaged in minor chit-chat. He asked us all sorts of questions. One of them was about the boots I was wearing: a pair of brown paratrooper boots that went up my calves and had a leather cap on the toe. He asked me what they were, and I told him. He made a face.
“Why would you want to wear THOSE?” he asked.
I replied that I thought they looked cool. He didn’t agree.
“They look like girl shoes!” he shot back.
An adult wouldn’t say a truth like that, even if he really believed it. An adult would mutter some vague pleasantry like, “Oh, that’s nice.” As opposed to a child, an adult would know better than to speak a true opinion if it were not between friends. As a courtesy, adults will pleasantly smile and conceal, truth be damned. A child doesn’t operate by the same rules. When you smile or make a face at a child and they don’t laugh, they are being genuine. It’s simply not funny to them. How many times have you told a joke and gotten a fake laugh in return? It begs the question, “Which is worse: false humoring or genuine dislike?” With kids, there isn’t the option. They haven’t been conditioned to hide their true feelings yet. Adults do this every single day - and my irrefutable example is the age-old office exchange:
Person One: “How are you?”
Person Two: “Fine, and you?”
Person One: “Good.”
Person Two: “Great.”
It doesn’t matter who the conversation is with, because it’s not an actual inquiry. It’s a formality. It wouldn’t matter if you had cancer. It wouldn’t matter if one of you was one fire. It wouldn’t matter even if you were talking to Adolf Hitler or to the Devil himself. It’s simply one of the scripts we follow on a daily basis. Children don’t play by the same rules; hence the culture shock when I first started being around them on a regular basis again.
When I first met my niece Rosemary, she was less than a year old. I met her not long after I met my wife. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of her. Adults are pretty easy to charm, but kids can usually tell when a person is being sincere or not. Despite my best efforts, it took her a while to warm up to me. That first meeting consisted of my blabbering to her and her blankly staring back at me. At Thanksgiving dinner, I finally broke through the barrier, and we’ve been buddies ever since. Today, I hung out with my friends and their two children. I’m known as “Crazy Joe,” the third time in my life I’ve somehow earned the moniker. Spending time with them is fun, because now, unlike before, I know how better to interact with them. I understand their view of the world and can adapt my communication skills to fit. For example, I would never have an adult conversation consisting of various versions of the sentence, “What color is this?”
I’m glad I’ve been able to learn how to interact with kids on a somewhat normal basis now. For a long time, I hadn’t the foggiest idea. Now, it’s easy - and it makes me look forward to the day when my kids are able to tell me that I wear boots that would probably look better on a girl.

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