I've been involved with several youth organizations in recent years. I've worked with the high school age group because, when an upsurge of carefully-repressed memories allow, I empathize with the adolescent experience and, having survived it, desire to impart a piece of my sage twenty-something wisdom on a group of unsuspecting teens. I have less patience for the awkward transitional period that is the middle school -- girls and boys with changing bodies and interests, but with death grips on the silliness of youth. This pre-pubescent mentoring is a learning experience for me, an opportunity to put my concepts of patience and tolerance to good use. However, neither of these age groups quite compare to the elementary-aged kids.
I've worked with a group of these little ones on a regular basis. The other leaders are either high schoolers who have been on the youth side of the very same group themselves, teachers who've made their living wrangling school-aged tots or mommy helpers whose own children participate actively. And, then there's me -- twenty-something singleton, writer and lover of great craft beer, spending an hour and a half each week singing and dancing and crafting and playing with a bunch of suburban elementary kids.
These kids, being brilliantly perceptive as children always are, can't quite figure me out. I can't even count the number of times I've been asked, "Miss Stephanie, are you married?" My responses are varied. Laughter is common. Snorting is an occasional knee-jerk reaction. If I'm not caught completely off-guard, I might stammer "uh, not yet..."
I've also learned that the marriage question is often accompanied by the equally important in a 7-year-old's mind, "Do you have kids?" Perhaps the askers want to understand what I'm doing there, are looking for some kind of validity that I have a place as an adult leader. These questions are nothing compared to the other favorite, one I've gotten more times than I care to admit, when a little nugget, no more than 5 or 6, puts a hand on my stomach and asks some variation of, "Is there a baby in there?" I really have been meaning to start that diet again.
Kids are not only observant of the adult world around them; they see and comprehend what happens in and amidst their own social groups. So, when you're thinking to yourself, Gee, I wonder if little Ned brushed his teeth today? and then you hear Lauren say "Don't breathe on me. You smell," you're almost relieved someone else noticed. Or when you frequently notice a little girl whose clothing are just a little too small, and then one of her friends points this out to her, your own guilt in looking at her this way is augmented -- or maybe validated. So often a child has plucked a thought out of my head and said aloud that mean truth I'd been thinking, but would never have the nerve to express.
All of this is perhaps why I like working with children the most -- the challenges, the insults, those awkward moments where I just don't know what to say. It's in those examples that we see humanity in its most glaringly honest and unapologetic glory. We see the notions and ideas so entrenched in us as adults just starting to take root in the minds of a child, how organic it all really is. Kids don't analyze. They don't think about why they're saying or thinking a certain thing because it's what mom, dad, grandpa, grandma, teacher, friend or society tells them. They just say whatever pops into their pretty little heads, and that's it.
But I admire this brutal honesty found in interactions with children, because that's just what it is: honest. We live in a world increasingly bogged down by the ever-growing bipartisanship of two warring parties, and the "say-anything" attitude this has inspired in our leaders. It's an era where Internet knowledge is at the fingertips of anyone with a laptop or a smartphone, but value on the accuracy of that knowledge has been seriously diminished. It's a space where media rules our perceptions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no matter the cost. In times like these, sometimes it's refreshing to sit back and watch a child say, "I don't want to play with him because I don't like him," or "Do we have to do this right now? I think it's dumb," because there are no lies in that, no two-faced behavior. While the severity is never lost, it's absolutely genuine -- and sometimes that kind of authenticity, as brutal as it may sometimes seem, can be a welcome change of pace.