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When Adults Help Kids
Bestowing attention onto a child is a profound act of generosity.
“Dorset,” by Elizabeth Johnson, 12” x 16” oil on birch panel
My mom, a painter, hosted a big art show last weekend. Its purpose was to showcase her unusual winter project—one painting for every day of January, all depicting the village of Dorset, Ontario, where she lives.
The show was a smashing success. The gallery filled with people who came from near and far to see the collection in its entirety. For me, who lives four hours away, it was a rare opportunity to reconnect with old friends, neighbours, and acquaintances. I had numerous conversations with people, mostly my parents' age or older, that I have not seen or spoken to in years.
By the end of the afternoon, I felt struck by the memories these interactions brought back. It felt like a reckoning of sorts with the profound generosity shown to me by various adults at different points in my life. It made me realize just how fortunate I’ve been to have had such tremendous support from adults other than my parents.
The Gift of Engagement
I'll try to explain. There was Lori, who invited me a trip to New Brunswick when I was 15, in exchange for helping babysit her young sons. We spent two glorious weeks exploring the Bay of Fundy. She was the one who, on a mountain biking excursion, challenged my assumption that I couldn't handle a year-long student exchange program and said, "Why not? Just do it!" So I did.
There were my elementary school teachers, Mrs. Wales and Mrs. Macdonald. Mrs. Wales was the principal at the Dorset Elementary School for all the years I attended. She ran that three-room school with its packed multi-grade classrooms, always with a big smile. I remember her handing out popsicle sticks during painful running drills up the Lookout Tower mountain, checking the yard for bears in springtime before letting us out for recess, and taking the entire school on a single school bus to go downhill skiing.
Mrs. Macdonald taught me kindergarten. She always played the piano for our daily rendition of “Oh, Canada,” and I distinctly remember my first-ever lesson in cursive. I thought capital L was the most beautiful letter of all, and I was envious that my classmate Lauren Lonsdale got to write it twice.
Then I saw Sheila, who has a cottage in Dorset. She and her husband Stephen took a great interest in me and my sister, inviting us to Toronto for weekends and eventually offering their gorgeous art-filled downtown apartment as a place to stay on a weekly basis when we started traveling to the city for a special music program in high school. We couldn't have done it without them. Later in university, I spent a year living with Sheila's daughter.
Aunt Ruth and Uncle John, now in their 90s, showed up in their new electric car. We reminisced about crafting classes and trips in their camper van and the time she convinced me that Florida oranges were a special kind of vitamin that would give me magical energy to finish a long hike in Algonquin Park.
There was Julie, whose daughters I grew up with. We travelled to Montreal and Cincinnati together for music-related events. She is one of those infectiously warm people who's a natural cheerleader. Whenever I see her, she tells me how much she loves me and everything I'm doing, and I can't help but love her back.
There were neighbours from the lake, people who have watched me grow up, hosted a baby shower for me, who say they now enjoy seeing my boys doing the same things I once did—paddle canoes, do cannonballs off the dock, learn how to waterski. One woman said she hasn't seen me since my wedding and that I look younger now than I did then. (I don't believe her, but I'll take it.)
Then, of course, there were my two aunts, Jane and Beverley, who came to help my mom. Jane took me to Asia when I was 14, which fuelled my lifelong obsession with travel. (This was after another generous aunt and uncle took me to Paris at age 11, which really kicked it all off.) Jane met me in Sardinia at the end of my year-long exchange in high school. We share a love of travel, food, and music.
Beverley has written letters, sent photos and money over the years, and always shows up laden with gifts of food that my children devour. This time, it was a bag of Korean seaweed treats that, my kids say, are all the rage at school right now; they were more excited than if she'd brought candy.
Attention As True Generosity
When the art show ended, I was left with a warm glowing sensation—and a sharp realization that the attention adults give to children and young adults matters a great deal. My parents created many opportunities for me and my siblings, but their influence was limited; it was because so many other adults embraced me that numerous other doors opened as well.
It brings to mind a beautiful quote from French philosopher Simone Weil: "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." There is no greater gift you can give another human than bestowing your full attention on them. These adults all gave me their attention at some point, in some way, and it enriched my life profoundly.
Tiffany Slain wrote in 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week that all interactions are "an opportunity to sew something positive into the fabric of society." For me, these adults have done that. They saw a chance to help or befriend some random kid in small-town Ontario, and they did it. Those interactions shaped the person I've become—and I hope someday to be able to pay forward those kindnesses.
I am more meditative on this topic these days because my dad's cousin died suddenly this month. Sherry was a close family member, someone I visited every time I went home and loved dearly. She always poured me an extra-large glass of cold white wine to take down to the dock, where we'd sit and talk as the kids swam. I've known her my entire life and it's hard to imagine her not being there this summer.
And my "adoptive" grandma, Stephanie, a lovely English woman who took me under her wing when I was small, passed away yesterday. She cared for me regularly, supervising me in her indoor swimming pool, pouring countless cups of tea, filling bowls with homegrown raspberries, and letting me watch The Sound of Music every week for years until I could sing it from start to finish. She taught me and my siblings to read and write, and she made me memorize Bible verses. She served dreadful banana-bread-and-relish sandwiches that I choked down dutifully; I tried to scrape off the relish secretly to salvage the banana bread. A large framed photo of her, with me and my sister sitting on either side in matching dresses and straw hats, hangs in my parents' home.
It's hard to see these people go, to think that no future memories will be made. And it makes me all the more aware of how fortunate I am to have had them in my life, along with the others described above (and so many more).
It brings to mind a beautiful quote from French philosopher Simone Weil: "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." There is no greater gift you can give another human than bestowing your full attention on them.
A child desperately needs adults to show interest in them, to reach out with ideas for growth and expansion, to take the first step toward kindling—and then maintaining—a genuine, deep relationship. Parents, I'm realizing more than ever, are tired and stretched thin. They cannot do it all. For others to step forward and share that burden of child-raising, and to offer whatever unique skills and personality and perspective they possess, is a beautiful thing; it's the metaphorical village in action.
If you are an adult with time and interest to spare, offer it to a child. You never know the lasting effect it might have.
Related: Wonder, an Antidote to Despair
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