Monday, September 2, 2013

How to Play & Other Stuff I Learned from my Five-Year-Old Niece

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Based on a very unscientific examination of the childfree community on Twitter into which I have self-selected, my stance on the subject is middle-of-the-road. I am neither a principled objector to kids on the basis of environmental or population issues, nor someone who hates kids. I simply lacked ambition in the arena of motherhood; my life without kids failed to seem incomplete. Congruent with my feelings on the matter, I am entirely comfortable admitting that by not having kids I am missing out on certain things. This seems no stranger to me than acknowledging the equal and opposite truth: that parents make sacrifices for their children.

Last week I spent some time with my five-year-old niece, who lives in another state, and caught up on some lessons I may have otherwise missed. On our first evening together I babysat for a couple of hours while my sister went to an appointment. I had arrived armed with a Disney Princess activity book, and, given my niece, M, is something of a princess aficionado, was feeling rather confident that we would have no problem entertaining ourselves while my sister was away. Upon unwrapping the book, M immediately tore open the pack of gemsplastic rubies, emeralds and topaz with sticker backingsignoring the colored pencils and stencils and coloring book pages of princesses on which we were supposed to draw ball gowns and adorn them with said jewels. Much to my distress, she took straight to sticking the gems to one and other, announcing "I'm making jewels!"

"Shouldn't we save some to decorate the princess' necklaces?" I asked, trying to mask my rising sense of panic while vainly flipping to one of the coloring book pages to try to interest her in a princess stencil.

But it was too late. She was going to use all those stickers right up before she even noticed there were pictures of princesses to decorate with the darn jewels. Gems were everywhere: in the carpet, on her elbows, and, yes, a few successfully stuck together to make what I can now, with the benefit of hindsight, see were her logical attempts at facsimiles of real-life, three-dimensional gems.

And then it dawned on me that my agitation was because M was not playing "right." Of course not being a form from the IRS, the Disney Princess activity book doesn't come with a set of rules. This is just as well because M. doesn't yet have a concept of how to play according to the rules. And long may it be until she gets one because then she'll turn into someone like me who thinks there is a right way and wrong way to do everything, even PLAY. After taking a moment to briefly hate myself, I joined in with M in sticking some jewels together. Later when she used up all the Little Mermaid stickers on the very first page of the coloring book, I didn't even flinch.

My second lesson of my visit came the next morning. When M. woke up, still groggy and in her Disney Princess P.J.s, she went straight to the coffee table, which hosts a selection of construction paper and markers and such, and began work on various crafts. She had produced a kite, a butterfly and a handful of ice-cream cones by the time we lured her to the breakfast table. When I left for work she was busy composing a song and dance about vegetables (admittedly the vegetable angle was my sister's idea). M wasn't going to be nominated for any Grammy Awards, but she didn't care. Her urge to create was native, and there was nothing she couldn't do armed with a ball of hot-pink yarn and a red ukulele.

M reminded me that the act of creation was the ice cream and the hot fudge and the whipped cream of that particular sundae. Any assessment of whether or not the end product is any good is the maraschino cherry, and everyone knows opinion about maraschino cherries is as polarizing as Hilary Clinton. The magic is in the doing. And so, after two days, I left with one of M's creations, a heart-shaped kite, tied to my carry-on bag. It's not as subtle as a string tied around my finger, but I'm keeping it as a reminder to write and live with fewer rules and more abandon.