When I answered the door, I could see just a few wispy blond curls peeking out from behind my neighbor Deidre’s legs, and the edge of a frilly pink skirt. And a dusty plastic food container clutched in a tiny hand.
“Snelks!” she said softly as she looked up to her grandmother, tugging on her hand and shaking the container. A round face peered past Deidre’s knee, and I asked: “Would you like to look for snails in my garden?” With a solemn look of reproach she disappeared behind Deidre’s legs again. Apparently I’m not authorized to speak to her.
Taking her by the hand, Deidre led her into my garden. I tagged along. If there’s one thing I have plenty of in my garden, it’s snails. I mean snelks. Plus, I have a big soft spot in my heart for shy children (and scared dogs).
Knowing that a shy child is like a lot like a scared dog, I kept my distance, and didn’t look directly at her, just kept up a calm steady conversation.
“You know, snails like to sleep during the day, in a dark spot that’s nice and damp. Let’s turn over this log, and we can see if there are any snails underneath.” We struck out on the first log, but under the second there were two huge snails. I had to point them out - snails and dead leaves look a lot alike.
With two more snails we headed for the compost pile. An old rotting doormat provides a mostly mud-free place to stand when emptying the compost. That’s helpful because we’re usually emptying the compost in the pouring rain - but that. as Des says, is a whole ‘nother Oprah.
I pulled back the edge of the doormat, and there were several fat shiny snails. And some even fatter slugs, but she thought they were disgusting and slimy, and she was not interested. Plus they don’t rattle together like snails do. Pity - I thought I had found an organic solution to the mollusk crisis and a way to preserve what’s left of the basil. Alas, no.
A few more stones overturned, a few more snails rattling around in the plastic, and still I was not allowed to speak directly to her - she didn’t disappear when I did, but I did get the “I’m disappointed in you” look every time.
I have learned with dogs and small children that patience is required. And I’m getting some. I have patience with children and dogs, just not with idiots.
After lunch the adults were talking books - grown-up books, and I could see her eyes glaze over (grown up talk can be so boring) so I brought out my copy of The Day The Crayons Quit, a book that should be in every library. Adult or child. And I started to read it to Deidre, and show her the pictures. Making sure, of course, that my shy young friend could see too.
A few moments later there was a soft blond head nestled under my chin, and a pair of serious eyes looking at me.
“Read!” she commanded. And read I did. Putting on all my best crayon voices, and using acting skills I didn’t know I had, I read that book.
“Again!” she commanded. By now the grown ups were talking about us, and I was afraid they would jinx it, this precious chin-tickling moment.
After the second reading she climbed down and went off to explore the garden. Beyond snails. I watched the frilly pink skirt disappear down the steps, and scratched my itchy chin.
I will always love that book. And I will always treasure the memory of that solemn face and those wispy curls.
Jill’s rules for dealing with children:
Don’t talk down to them. They’re young, not stupid.
Don’t try to grab them. If someone twice your size tried to grab you, you’d freak out too.
Be patient. This is perhaps the most important. Hint: works with more than just children.
Figure out what they want to do - unlike most grown-ups, they will actually tell you. Then do it. You’re the adult here, it’s up to you to act like a child. Don’t expect them to meet you on your level.
Be genuine. Children can spot a phony a mile away. (Maybe we should put some children on the Supreme Court? Or sign them up as congressional staffers?)
Don’t forget to have fun. That is, after all, the point of childhood.