I wish I could tell you that you would enjoy the narrative portion of this post, but I cannot guarantee that. Yet I think the point is missed if I simply spew advice without the narrative as background, so I find the “boring” parts equally important. I hope you will too.
This last Sunday I was invited by a family at my church to come over and have lunch that afternoon. I knew the family somewhat, but not that well. And they are great people, they just returned to the States from being overseas (with some visits back to the States) for five years. I had already come to know Mark, the father, and Jimmy and Nate better, the two oldest boys, because I helped out when the youth group at my church went to a Christian summer camp a year and a half ago.
I had the opportunity to sort of meet the whole family about a week ago, but it was just an introduction of names (and sometimes only a pointing to who the person was). The whole family looked like this (in order of age): Mark, the father, Joni, the mother, Jimmy, Nate, Truett, Abe, Isaac, Delaney, and Avonlea. They live with some extended family, the father and mother of Joni, Dave and Elaine. They are really great people too. They were some of the most encouraging and welcoming people when I first started attending church. There was also a couple there that just joined our church.
I arrived and talked to Dave, Elaine, and Joni for a bit. Elaine and Joni were working on preparing lunch. I also spoke a bit to Abe. While hanging around the upstairs kitchen, Delaney, 7, came by and we started talking. I hadn’t met her before, but she was pretty outgoing. Their whole family seemed to know of me, which I was appreciative of because I enjoyed getting to know Mark, Jimmy, and Nate at camp that summer. For anyone who doesn’t know, I became very close to my pastor’s daughters when I was up in Hannibal. They were/are around Delaney and Avonlea’s ages, so I tend to have a natural affinity for caring about young girls due to those beneficial experiences.
We all helped carry stuff downstairs so that we could eat. I saw Avonlea, 5, and tried to talk to her and wave to her multiple times, but she is very shy and so she didn’t respond. Nate and Truett showed me the room they share with Abe. Abe sat next to me at the table. I spoke to the adults about various things, but nothing too major. Delaney must have seen Nate and Truett showing me their room because she told me during lunch that she could show me her room too. So once we were finished with lunch, I went with Delaney to see her room. Avonlea joined us.
While Delaney was telling me about her room and all of her stuff, out of nowhere Avonlea decided to start talking to me. She started sharing important stuff about her room. They both showed me various jewelry they had, their stuffed animals, and their princesses. We talked about movies they liked, the book their mom was reading to them at night, and related topics. After learning about them and their room, we headed back downstairs.
Abe wanted to play baseball with a plastic bat and ball and he asked me if I wanted to play with him. I said yes. Delaney and Avonlea wanted to go outside with us. I pitched to Abe while he hit the ball as Delaney and Avonlea played on the swing. Mark came out to train the dog so it understood the boundaries of the electric fence. Delaney and Avonlea decided they wanted to play baseball with us, so while Abe hit we would all race to the ball in order to see who could get there first. We let Avonlea win once and she was happy. Delaney also won.
Then, Delaney and Avonlea had opportunities to try and hit the ball. Delaney had some success on her own. I helped Avonlea learn how to stand and swing the right sort of way and she ended up hitting the ball a few times. She was ecstatic, and so were we. Abe climbed a tree as I pushed Delaney and Avonlea on the swing at various times. It started to get cold and Avonlea wanted to go inside (Delaney was inside looking for gloves already), so she asked me if I would go inside with her. We all headed in.
Inside, Delaney, Avonlea, and I played “Guess Who?” for a few games. They showed me more of their room and also their storage room. If you haven’t noticed yet, I spent most of my time with the two of them. At one point, I pointed out to Avonlea that she wouldn’t even talk to me at first and now she was very talkative. She told me about that she’s shy with the characteristic sass that only a young girl around her age has. They were talking about their hair stuff when their Joni told me that I didn’t have to let them do my hair. I laughed and pointed out to Avonlea that my hair was almost as long as hers. She observed, “Your hair is curly. Do you curl it?!” I denied the charge while enjoying the cute honesty that surrounds children. And the way they grab your arm/hand so that you will come with them and you have to do that awkward walk/run thing (like when someone in a car tells you you can cross the street or someone holds a door open when you are a bit away) because they are going too fast to keep up by walking but if you jog you will run over them.
Mark told me that I wasn’t forced to be in their room learning about their stuffed animals. And that brings me to the inexplicable point that somehow I am good with children when pretty much anyone who knows me (including myself) would probably predict the opposite. That is something I have thought long about and I’m still not sure why, but I think I have a clue.
In Mark telling me I wasn’t obligated, he didn’t mean anything negative by it. He loves his family very much. But I think he was pointing out something that probably affects many people in being around little children. To be frank, I’m really not that personally interested in princesses, stuffed animals, and a lot of stuff that girls are interested in. There’s never been a point in my life when I wanted to sit down and learn more about princesses. I think that’s what partially explains why people have a difficult time around children: we are so interested in talking about stuff that we are interested in, that being around children and listening to them talk about princesses becomes a chore. We are oftentimes willing to put up with it and sometimes we can fool children with our fake reactions, but they end up figuring it out and that probably affects them in deeply negative ways that we never consider.
Because when Delaney and Avonlea are telling me about stuffed animal owls including the names of the father, mother, and baby owl, that’s not something I would think about looking at the tag to find out on my own. But what ends up happening is I’m interested in what they are interested in because I’m interested in them. I find joy in their joy in those things because I find joy in them. And that’s a lot easier for me to do with children. This was my first time ever getting to know Delaney and Avonlea and it was only for a few hours, but something about the openness of kids makes me more open. Kids laugh because they are happy, and they are never worried about whether it’s a “pretty” laugh according to social standards, which I think we could learn a lot from.
So maybe that’s why I get along with children so well. Because I actually care about what they have to say. Not as a means of getting through it so I can take my turn to talk, but as an outworking of my care for them. I’m no saint: this is not my natural disposition; I doubt it is anyone’s.
And all of that brings me to something else I noticed when I reflected on those moments. In learning about Delaney’s and Avonlea’s jewelry, I found myself forgetting about wanting to share the quirky things that interest me: language, cultural history, etc. When I talked to Mark and Joni last Sunday, I mentioned how I read a lot. They asked me what I was reading and I said I was reading Karl Barth right now and gave a bit of details. They mentioned that they would like to hear more. And to be honest, talking about Karl Barth probably interests me a lot more than it should. I could probably talk about him a lot longer than anyone would want to listen (and rightfully so). But they were willing to listen because they cared.
Because in those moments with Delaney and Avonlea, I learned to forget about myself. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t share about my reading if people asked. The point isn’t being rude. And that doesn’t mean that all of the sudden I no longer enjoyed philosophy of language, I still did. I am still willing to share if that will help them grow in some way or help us grow as people in right relationships. But so much of wanting to share is because it is sharing about me instead of sharing for you and for us. And I think if we could learn to forget about ourselves, even if it’s only for moments at a time at first, and we could figure out how to want to share out of love for others, both in their own growth and in our growth in relationship, then we would be growing in a lot of ways. Since God wants us to be whole people who are flourishing in right relationships with others, this is something we should be pursuing. I can’t absolutize my experience and say what works for me will work for you, but I hope reading this either awakens you to these things or encourages you in pursuing them.
Delaney and Avonlea told me they had a lot of fun. I told them I did too. They said they hoped I would come over again. Yeah, I would like that.