Five Things I Learned From Hanging Out with a Nine Year Old
Kids are great at providing perspective. Since they don't have jobs, can't vote, and generally don't start causing serious relationship drama until they turn into teenagers, they're uniquely placed to learn what really matters (whether they intentionally mean to teach us or not).
First, some context: I don't have kids. I'm not a parent and don't have child rearing experience. However, because my girlfriend's roommate has been babysitting a nine-year-old girl over the summer, I've spent two months hanging out with a kid. Having a young person around is an endless series of perspective shifts. It's hard to not learn a few lessons with a kid in the mix.
For the purposes of this article, we'll call the nine-year-old in question Giggles. A nickname she's more than earned.
Stop Stressing and Go With the Flow
I'm not exactly the type of person who needs to plan every detail of my weekly events with a spreadsheet, but I am the type who likes to know what I'm getting into before I commit. If I'm going to get in the car with a group of friends, and someone else is driving, I like to know where we're going first. Kids don't have that luxury. In general, the adults present decide where the car is headed and if a child doesn't it like it, the most input they can offer is to pout.
Giggles rarely pouts. She doesn't always like everything but it only takes a few minute to move on to something else. A fun song on the radio, a game on her iPod, a watermelon named George. Distractions aren't hard to come by, and there's usually something interesting to pay attention to.
Adults don't always have the luxury of fun distractions. While sitting through a boring social event (I'm looking at you, weddings your friend dragged you to), you probably can't pull out your phone and play whatever the dumb phone game du jour is. However, whether it's a family reunion, a staff meeting, or a lengthy road trip, replace the need for control with curiosity or engagement. Ask questions, look out the window, or just appreciate where you are.
We all have to do things we don't like, but keeping a positive attitude, even during your crappy corporate job
Not All Screw Ups Are Catastrophes
When you're around children, parent or not, there's a certain expectation that your behavior will be different. You don't swear, you don't drink, and you don't make crude adult jokes. However, you don't have to be a parent to feel paranoid that you're going to mess up. Which leads to the single most devastating, horrifying, calamitous thing I've ever done.
I accidentally said "fuck" around the nine-year-old.
Much to my surprise and delight, the universe did not explode. More importantly, she did not immediately begin swearing like a sailor. While part of this is due to pre-existing parenting (I have not contributed in any way to teaching this girl that swearing is not something children should do), it also highlights a key lesson: not every mistake is the end of the world.
This doesn't mean there are no standards or that you don't have to do anything right. And in this particular case, most of the work of teaching her not to swear was already done for me. Since she'd already been taught properly, a mistake here or there from the adults in the room doesn't undo all the work that's already been done.
Mistakes are a normal part of adult routines. Overall habits are almost always more important. Most bosses won't care if you're five minutes late one day out of the year. They care if you're a half hour late every day. Patterns are more telling than individual slip ups. In fact, the occasional mistake can even make you more likeable
Approach Learning with Enthusiasm
By the nature of how time works, kids don't have many years of expertise in anything. Such was the case with Giggles when she first learned to play Bioshock. You see, the group of adults she hangs out with love the Bioshock games (like, a lot). She's been a part of the group for a while, but never allowed to play because they contain scary images. However, it was decided she was finally old and mature enough to give it a try.
The kinds of motor controls and reflexes required for a first person shooter (particularly with the Xbox controller she was using) aren't exactly built in to the human brain. Nor do humans come with an innate sense of scavenging for items that glow, or an instinctual ability to simultaneously wield lightning powers and pistols. These behaviors are learned. With adults watching and teaching, Giggles worked her way through Rapture.
This was not a frustration free process. Giggles needed to be instructed on how to scavenge for ammo or when to hack turrets several times. In some cases, she needed to pass the controller off to a more experienced player for a particularly hard part. However, none of these hurdles convinced her to give up. Each day she approached the game with enthusiasm, eager to learn how to do this thing she didn't know how to do before.
Adults have a tendency to believe that if they haven't already learned something, they shouldn't try. I'm a writer, so it would be an uphill battle to learn advanced calculus. However, with the same enthusiasm and willingness to be taught that a child exhibits (along with a healthy dose of practice
Don't Judge a Mango By Its Cover
While writing this article
"Hey, Giggles. Would you like some mangos?"
"Eww, no. I don't like mangos."
"Have you ever had mangos?"
As predictably as a Big Bang Theory punchline, we gave Giggles some mangos and she loved them. Fortunately, stubbornness isn't one of Giggle's stronger traits, so the preconceived notion of disliking mangos was easy to dismiss.
For adults, it's not always so easy. We don't like to try things that are unfamiliar because unfamiliar is scary. Sometimes I'll even avoid watching a movie if it isn't very obviously up my alley because I'm worried about being bored. This sort of hesitance is a surefire way to miss out on sweet new experiences.
There Is No Correct Formula for Living Life
Perhaps the strangest part of spending the summer with a nine year old is that little else changed. I've spent roughly two months hanging out with three adults and a young child, none of whom are the child's parent. We play grown up video games, go to conventions
This is hardly the most abnormal social situation, but every once in a while, it registers as strange. Giggles has close friends that are twenty years her senior just as easily as she has younger friends. They're not entirely caretakers, they're not chaperones. They're just bigger people she hangs out with.
Adults like to keep to their established social patterns. If you're in your 20s, you're supposed to hang out with people in their 20s. If you're a parent, you need to hang out with other parents. Some of this is driven by necessity, but other times it's simply due to preconceived notions of the "way things are supposed to be."
Sometimes a kid has two dads. Sometimes a college dropout starts a billion dollar business. Sometimes a finance major becomes an artist. The "normal" template works for many people (they have to come from somewhere, right?), but it's not mandatory. You may spend your days hanging out with a homogenous group of people who all match you in age, gender, and economic status. Or your best friend might be someone else's nine year old.