Small Human Beings - Stimulating Company

"First my parents' friends make my little brother the center of attention, then they don't want to pay any attention to him. It's like they want to turn him on and off." I was struck by the acuteness of this older sibling's observation.

I think it's hard for all of us to figure out how to treat very small human beings. There is something so fresh and endearing about them that we are irresistibly attracted. Their unconscious pleasure and innocence are such a wonderful contrast to our worries, our inhibitions, our exhaustion, our preoccupations with what others will think. They give us a fresh glimpse of what life could really be like. They recharge us.

But then, there is the other side. They fuss. They cry. They call for attention when we have other plans for it. They call insistently. What they are interested in and challenged by has long since ceased to interest or challenge us.

These reactions to very small children seem opposite, but there is a common theme. The focus is on us, and how they make us feel. When we could use some charm and innocence and a reminder of the goodness of life, we find babies useful. When we have our own agendas, we can easily find them a nuisance. We do indeed want to turn them on or off.

The perspective that I'm finding most intriguing these days is that very small children are inherently interesting human beings, quite separate from their relation to us. How they perceive the world is interesting. How they take on new challenges is interesting. How they figure out their relationships to others is interesting. If my goal when I am around small children is to notice, not how they make me feel, but what they are trying to do and how they are doing it, then they are invariably stimulating company.

It's taken a while. I can remember being consumed by impatience at my toddlers' pace and choice of activity. I have foggier memories of when they were babies and it didn't look as if they were doing anything. But I am glad to still have infants and toddlers in my life, because I see a challenge here now that I'm eager to take on.

When a small child wants a book read aloud six times in a row, the obvious adult reaction is to be bored. The more interesting one is to try to figure out what that child is trying to accomplish by the repetition. When a baby makes eye contact under certain conditions and not others, it may not look like much is happening. But something is clearly going on, and trying to solve the puzzle of what is a task worthy of all my adult experience wisdom and observational skills.

I think the moral is simple. Human beings are just plain interesting--with age as a totally irrelevant factor. And those interactions we find the most interesting will be the ones in which we pay closest attention to the other person, really wanting to know who they are, separate from us, and what they are trying to do.