Sunday, January 1, 2012

What Children Know: A Wish for 2012.

     It is 9:45 p.m. on New Year's Eve, and I am beat. Mom came for an overnight visit this afternoon with my four year old niece, Jerney, and they are back in our bedroom, reading a bedtime story. I have forgotten how exhausting, yet incredibly refreshing it is to be around a child that age, and I can't think of a better way to welcome the new year. For Christmas, Mom gave Brad and me a game called Table Topics, and although it's intended for older children and adults, Jerney insisted that we play it together as we ate our dessert of generously frosted mini-cupcakes in front of the fire. Each card has a conversation starter question like, "Which of your five senses would you be the saddest to lose?" or "What makes you different from other people?" As soon as we started playing, Jerney immediately lost interest. She instead began pretend-reading a story, holding up a drawing she and my mother had made earlier, as if it were a book. Although the drawing depicted a toy mouse in a French sailor costume which I'd given her for Christmas, along with some musical notes, a birdhouse, and a person with curly brown hair, her story was about rainbows and a crocodile who had gotten eaten by a shark. She was making it up as she went along, which was pretty much how we'd spent our afternoon together. After we ate dessert, Mom took Jerney to put on her pink-horse pajamas and  brush her teeth. I began collecting the cards to put them back into their box, and noticed one which asked "What Do Children Know More About Than Adults?" Brad and I exchanged knowing glances as I read it. In an instant, we had each performed a quick mental review of the highlights of our day with Jerney, simultaneously responding with a laugh: "Just about everything."
     Shortly after Mom and Jerney arrived, we strolled down the street together to grab some lunch at Harvest Moon. Jerney noticed everything, from the "R" and the "E" in the Rome Christmas sign that was hanging on a street light to a purple Christmas tree inside a shop window display, an obscure chandelier inside the restaurant, made entirely of silverware, as well as two boots protruding from the mouth of a giant stuffed sailfish, which was suspended from the ceiling. But, Jerney didn't just randomly notice these objects, she completely immersed herself in experiencing every new thing she saw. Her endless observations and her delight in the sensual pleasures of ordinary things were infectious, transformative, and Mom, Brad, and I re-discovered our own innate ability to appreciate often overlooked minutia, such as the smoothness of the tiny lacquered wooden spoon Jerney used to eat her honey-nana Greek yogurt and the rough beard-like texture of a kiwi fruit's skin.
     While we waited for our lunch to arrive, Jerney busied herself coloring a pre-printed cow with a fork for a tail, which our waitress had given to her. Mom gently suggested that she needed to try and color inside the lines, to which Jerney replied matter-of-factly in her Southern drawl, "Well, I think it's OK if I color outside the lines, too, Grandma!" Even though she's only four, Jerney is definitely on to something with that statement. I firmly believe that the genesis of creativity and innovative thought is rooted in childhood, and if we aren't constantly asking "Why?" and questioning authority, we lose it. As a lifelong color-outside-the-lines girl myself, I am well acquainted with thinking outside the box, and although it's typically not well received outside the world of liberal arts, I wake up every day, satisfied in the knowledge that, as Hermann Hesse eloquently observed, I was "able to live according to the promptings which came from my true self." My hope for Jerney is that she will never lose the primitive sense of autonomy and empowerment which comes from knowing it's OK to color outside the lines.
     Jerney helped me make a fruit salad for dinner. She informed me that her daddy, a professionally trained chef, allows her to use a knife to cut up the fruit, so I obliged and supervised as she used a tomato knife to slice the strawberries and apples. While she worked on the salad, I made her some home-made chicken nuggets from breast meat. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the fact that not all kids prefer real chicken nuggets to the pressed chicken parts served at McDonald's. My own children had always been good eaters, appreciative of my efforts in the kitchen, and their father and I rarely experienced a fussy dining moment with Nick or Rory. At our house, being a picky eater was simply not an option, and they ate whatever the grown ups were eating, with the exception of lasagna, which Nick for some reason detested. "The noodles are too big!" he'd complain. We sat down for dinner, and on Jerney's plate were four chicken nuggets, a single stalk of balsamic-roasted asparagus, some bow tie noodles, and a custard cup filled with fruit salad. She first let us know that she wanted to put the butter on the noodles herself, and then announced that she did not like chicken nuggets or asparagus. We could all sense the impending whininess and complaining that was to follow. I don't subscribe to the notion that you can reason with a four year old, and I told her plainly that in order for her to get her snowflake cupcake for dessert, she'd have to try a little bit of everything on her plate. The tears began streaming and she wailed, "But my Mama doesn't make me eat this kind of stuff!" I responded kindly, but firmly that Uncle Brad and Aunt Kris had different rules, and that in our house, grown ups don't argue with four year olds, reiterating that she must try one bite of everything on her plate to get the cupcake. She looked at me so woefully, her blue eyes filled with tears, sobbing, "You made me cry!" We let her stew in her tantrum for a couple of minutes, continuing with dinner, commenting about how wonderful the chicken and noodles tasted. Brad and I demonstrated how properly cooked asparagus can be eaten with one's hands, instead of a fork and knife, and we could see Jerney watching us from the corner of her eye. After a moment, all was right in her world again, and while examining a chicken nugget before shoving the entire thing into her mouth,  she exclaimed, "You know, I think I actually DO like chicken nuggets!" She had completely forgiven my transgression in not bending the rules for her, and she wasn't going to hold a grudge. With children her age, there are no hidden agendas. You always know exactly where they stand on issues, and even when they don't get their way, they have a remarkable capacity for forgiveness: they are transparent.
     Starting from the moment Jerney walked through our door, I think I must have heard "I love you, Aunt Kris" a hundred times. It was wonderful to get spontaneous hugs and kisses from her, and to know that each "I love you" was genuine and pure, something heartfelt which she wanted and needed to share. She clearly delighted in giving of herself, whether it was drawing a picture for me of her little stuffed monkey or helping me make dinner. It's amazing how a child's sweetness and kindness can permeate an entire household, reshaping the way we sometimes view one another as "old and in the way" into someone who's "near and dear." She's already left an indelible impression on us, and we can't wait till she visits again.
     My wish for all of us grown ups in 2012 is that we recapture some of the innocence and idealism of our youth. Let's all pay more attention to the little things that make life worthwhile. Let's love and forgive freely. Let's be transparent. Let's question authority and not be afraid to ask "Why?" Most of all, let's allow ourselves once again to color outside the lines.

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