One of the reasons why I’ve always loved being with children is that they are so honest. They don’t play emotional games. They tell you what they think.
I loved that in my classroom, because I learned pretty quickly that if I just listened, I could let them guide me toward a happier, more cooperative classroom.
As a Mom, I wasn’t always successful, but I tried to listen to what my kids were telling me. I tried to listen when they used words, expressions and actions to tell me “Mom, I love when you make up silly songs!” I tried to listen, and look, and understand, when a terrible tantrum showed me that my child was thinking “Get me out of here! I am confused! I don’t understand!!! It’s too loud, too bright, too happy, too sad…..”
I have always loved the honesty of children.
I remember how happy I was when one of my own kids, after a big argument between us, told me, “What you said wasn’t fair. I’m really mad at you.” It was so incredibly freeing, because I was able to tell him he was right, move past the fight and get to the root of our differences (whatever on earth they were.)
And I remember when I once told my class to let me know if I upset them, and the one little boy who told me, “You’re way to happy all the time.”
I remember the children who told me, “Your eyes make me happy.” and “I love the way you walk.” I love the honesty of children. I trust it.
So of course, I have a story to share about this Christmas with my grandkids.
I am used to the fact that when the big family gathers around, both Ellie and Johnny try to keep their distance from me. I’m the every day caretaker. Not as necessary as Mom and Dad, yet more familiar than those exciting Aunts, Uncles and grandparents from further away.
If I try to play with Johnny, he smiles his sweet smile, but makes sure to point toward his parents. “Mamma”, he says firmly. “Daddy.” I get it. He’s telling me its OK for me to hang around, but I better understand that he’s safe at home with his parents right now, and doesn’t intend to move.
When I reach for Ellie as I come in, she often smiles, waves and moves back out of my grasp. “I’m talking to Aunt Cynthia right now,” she’ll tell me.
I’ve learned to keep my distance and to embrace the adult conversations at these gatherings without the pressure of childcare. Watching Ellie play with the extended family is so sweet. Seeing Johnny in the arms of my siblings or his other grandparents melts my heart completely.
I think the kids associate me with long days away from Mommy and Daddy. I know they love me, but still….I’m like the comfy sofa. Always there, but not particularly exciting.
But this Christmas Eve, I got a much clearer idea of why Ellie has mixed feelings when I arrive at family gatherings. She barely spoke to me during the many hours of eating, drinking, gift giving, laughing, hugging and family revelry.
She danced by me once or twice, but we didn’t really connect.
Finally, though, when everyone had headed home except for a few of us, she threw herself into my arms and kissed me with joy. I was ecstatic to finally have her to myself, and kissed her cheeks and hair.
Leaning back into the curve of my arms, Ellie grinned up at me. “Oh, Nonni! Thank you for having this big party with us! The whole whole world was here at our party!!!!”
I squeezed her tight, telling her how much fun it was for me to be there with her.
Then my sweet girl put one hand on each of my cheeks and smiled right into my eyes.
“Nonni,” she told me earnestly. “You were so good here tonight! You were so so good!”
“I was?” I asked, wondering what she meant.
“Yes! You were so quiet!!! You didn’t talk at all! You were so so good!” She kissed me again in gratitude for my silence.
Really? All she wanted was for me to shut the hell up?
“Uh,” I began, “I did talk to my family….”
“I know!” She crowed joyfully. “But you didn’t talk to me!”
I can either laugh at Ellie, laugh at myself, or think about the message she was sending.
I decided to think about the message.
I have realized that because of my background as a speech pathologist and teacher, I have a tendency to talk my way through every day. I think of it as language modeling, and of staying engaged.
But my Ellie, in her honesty, has told me that sometimes she needs a chance to think. A chance to just be, without all the words swirling around her.
Once again, a child is teaching me how to regulate myself. How to pay attention to the effect I am having. A child is showing me how to be a little bit better at my job.
That ability to learn and grow is a huge part of what I miss about teaching.
On the other hand, I haven’t missed that feeling of being a jerk!!