There are a couple of advantages to having a child like my 11-year-old son who tends to have a slightly withdrawn disposition. One became clear to me a couple of weeks ago when the parents of one of Tim’s friends took Tim along with three other boys his age into the city for dinner. “Tim is so calm!” the mother commented to me afterwards. Calm? I’d never thought about it. For all the time I’ve spent wishing my child would dial up the energy a little bit, get a little more engaged with the world around him, take a bit more of an interest in a wider range of possibilities, it had never occurred to me that compared to most 11-year-old boys – especially when being taken out for dinner in the city – he comes across not as sullen but as calm. Where they made rude noises and generally bounced off the walls, he pleasantly ate a hamburger. Not sullen. Not surly. Calm.
It’s a matter of perspective, of course. But the advantage with which I’m more familiar is the joy it brings me when he suddenly brightens, when something catches his attention and causes him to visibly perk up. It’s like the sun breaking through the clouds. And it happened just yesterday when he bounded up the stairs after school. Having spent so many years of picking him up after daycare and then preschool, and then meeting his afternoon bus day after day when he was in elementary school, I’m still not accustomed to the freedom our public school system affords a fifth grader: no longer required to meet him at the bus stop, I’m now usually hard at work in my home office when he suddenly pops through the door. He appreciates the independence, and so do I.
So he’s often in a relatively upbeat mood after school, but yesterday he was almost soaring. “Mom, it’s the weirdest thing!” he exclaimed, his dark brown eyes sparkling. “It’s like there are animals all around me today. When I got off the bus, there were all these bees flying around my head. Then I saw something like a groundhog run across the driveway. Then I turned around the bend and saw three deer, just standing there. They didn’t even seem startled; they just looked at me and walked on into the woods. And one of them was probably only about three weeks old!” He paused for a breath. “And then right before I got to the house, I was able to get really close to the new calf!” The new calf was born on our farm a week ago, and like most new calves, he is still skittish around us and usually jumps away when we tried to approach him.
Hearing the exuberance in Tim’s tone made me smile. He may be a pre-teen in many ways, interested mostly in baseball and science fiction, but seeing a fawn and walking up close to a calf still delights him. There are so many stages in which kids seem to straddle their earlier selves and their future selves all at once. My 7-year-old daughter will be striking model poses in the mirror one moment and then teaching an imaginary art class made up of stuffed animals the next. Similarly, Tim will ask a question about the Supreme Court only to grab his stuffed frog and start sucking his thumb, a habit he’s having a very hard time breaking.
But that’s part of what’s fun about watching kids grow: realizing it doesn’t always happen in a straight line, and in some respects, that’s what makes their personalities unique: the ways in which their younger selves and their older selves mingle as they age. In Tim’s case, it was an afternoon of wondrous sights: bees, groundhogs, deer (who, given the prevalence of Lyme disease in our community, we really shouldn’t be one bit happy to see, but we just can’t help it because they’re so beautiful and wild), a week-old calf. The unbridled delight on his face reminded me of the best part about his being usually so placid: when something thrills him, it’s a joy for me to be on the witnessing end.