Tuesday, 16 July 2013
Why Toddlers Freak Me Out... and how I learned to play with kids
I'm not really a "kiddie" kind of person.
I'm an only child, and I didn't particularly like kids even when I was one. I don't know what to say to a kid until they're eleven or twelve - and even then, pretty much only if they're a drama geek. Then I like them. I'm actually quite terrified of toddlers. Frankly, a lot of times kids pretty much freak me out - especially when they're in groups. Babies I like, because you can cuddle them like cats - and I love cats - and then you can hand them back to their parents when they make noise or a bad smell.
So I never dreamed that today I would be loving every minute of chasing a horde of four-year-olds around a dusty field, threatening to tickle them and make them shriek with laughter. I'm the last person who would usually ever pick up and hug a tiny child I don't know - especially one with a runny nose and sticky fingers and dirty clothes. And little kids don't usually fight to sit on my lap and study my hands and play with my finger nails, nor do they grab me by the hand and pull me into clapping games and high fives.
But today, they did.
We visited what they call a "creche," which is basically a kindergarten, play school and day care all rolled into one. We were greeted by around thirty kids under five, and they had us running and playing the minute we got out of the car.
Before I came to Africa, I had this vision of the kind of person I wanted to be around all these kids. I was thinking an Angelina Jolie-type person who selflessly hugs hungry babies, all the while looking fabulous in designer sunglasses. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to pull it off, and that instead, I'd awkwardly pat the kids on their shoulders and say, "Have a nice day," and "aren't you cute," and stare distantly into space because I simply wouldn't know what to say or do.
And I don't know what to say or do, but somehow, instinct takes over, and we're playing tag and tickles and having cuddles and singing songs before I even think about it.
It's a profound thing that happens when you remove the burden of speech from the communication equation. The little kids we visited today were between the ages of two and five, and while they are learning English, they have very little. So all of the communication had to be non-verbal, which takes my natural reticence to touch and my desire to preserve body space and throws it out the window.
I was amazed at how much we were able to communicate, and how much it didn't matter if we didn't exactly understand each other, big smiles were all we really needed.
And it helped me understand my toddler fear. I have a great need to communicate, to understand, and to be understood. Toddlers are scary to me because their needs are growing in complexity, beyond their communication skills. I so often don't understand what they're trying to say to me and they don't understand me, and we have the classic failure to communicate. Which frustrates me and breaks my heart a little.
I think what I don't realize with little kids at home is that I'm assuming all of the communication is verbal - because that's my primary means of communication. I'm a talker, not a hugger.
Here, being a talker is useless, and it's the hugs that matter. I have to remember that with kids at home.
Because I didn't feel the need to communicate verbally with these kids today, I was freed from a huge sense of responsibility. I didn't have to awkwardly fill silence with conversation. I didn't feel pressure to discern unfamiliar syllables and turn them into words. I was able to just be present with the kids, in the moment, and engage with them on their level. I didn't need to communicate anything more complex than my interest in them, that I cared about them, and that in that moment, that I loved them.
It was far more of a gift to me than it was to them.
Because they taught me how to play with children. I did not know how to do that before today.