Overlooking Alligators: On Keeping Your Kidness

“Ah, that thou couldst know thy joy,

Ere it passes, barefoot boy!”

“The Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Last year I chaperoned Sonny’s field trip to a wild animal safari park. We had lunch near the alligator pond, which of course was more attractive than lunch. Young would-be picnickers kept abandoning their lunches to take another quick peek. At one point audible excitement rose up from the pond’s bridge. “Look! Look!” Sonny and a few of his friends were leaning over the bridge rail, gesturing wildly. I joined them, wondering what the alligators were up to.

“Look! Minnows!”

Minnows? Minnows?

Leave it to kids. Overlooking alligators, beguiled by minnows.

I reported back to my fellow chaperones, who, after they stopped laughing and shaking their heads, began batting around similar stories.

Of the child at the zoo who wanted only to feed the ducks in the pond near the parking lot.

Of the child at the world-renowned botanical gardens who declared the dandelions her favorite flower of the whole day.

Of the child who dined with extended family at an upscale restaurant and rejected its gourmet offerings to ask for toast and celery.

They’ll sort things out eventually, we agreed. Meanwhile: unsophisticated kids, indifferent to life’s finer things, oblivious to natural hierarchy inherent in food and other entertainments. Little philistines.

Or are they?

– – –

Last week Ace asked a burning question: “What age do you become a grown-up?”

Age 18, officially, I told him. But it’s not as simple as that, of course. We discussed that people become grown-ups gradually. When you begin watching out for younger kids, when you help others, when you take responsibility, when you do things for yourself when you can—then you are slowly becoming a grown-up, even if you are still quite young.

Ace understood. “I’m working on becoming a grown-up by learning to drive already. I can’t steer yet, but I’m learning traffic rules so when I learn to steer, I’ll know what to do.”

Works for me.

Sonny had a question: “If you become a grown-up a little at a time, do you lose your kidness a little at a time, too?”

Yes. You can lose your kidness. You do this when you accept the arbitrariness of Butter Poached Lobster with Lemon Risotto being inherently superior to toast and celery. You discount the fact that the yellow of dandelions is just as brilliant as that of orchids. You take off your superhero cape before exiting the car instead of wearing it into the store. (Sniff!) You neglect to draw or paint, even though you’ve always loved drawing and painting, and you no longer lie on your back to watch clouds because you are too sophisticated for that, and besides, the neighbors might see you. When you invite people to your home, you worry about agenda and perfection of food and décor instead of enjoying one another’s company.

Maybe marveling at minnows in the alligator pond isn’t so ridiculous after all. Maybe it’s simply a show of childhood joy, and I don’t know about you, but I’d like some of that back.

I asked Sonny and Ace what they thought that people need to do to keep their kidness. Ideas flowed:

  1. Watch Wild Kratts.
  2. Build a snowman.
  3. Dig in the dirt.
  4. Go outside and run.
  5. Collect a pile of stuff and build something with it.
  6. Make a nest of blankets and pillows and read in it.
  7. Laugh at funny things.
  8. Make friends with bugs.
  9. Practice ninja moves.

Maybe digging in the dirt and befriending beetles isn’t at all your idea of any kind of joy, the childhood variety or otherwise. But what gave you joy as a child? Those things would probably give you joy now. Go and do them.

How have you kept your kidness?