Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Cutting Class

A 7-year-old avoids Hypocrisy 101

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  It is late afternoon, and my children and I are playing in the backyard on the swingset when my friend Dinah drives up. We are having a fine time. The baby is squealing in the baby swing. The 3-year-old is trying to make the rocket-rider reach high enough for him to touch a branch that hangs above the swingset. The self-reliant 7-year-old is happily poking for roly-polys under the rocks of our backyard fire ring.

The baby is unfazed by Dinah's arrival, but as soon as they see a visitor's car pulling into the driveway, the older boys shift out of their comfortable backyard selves into their public we're-on-stage-now roles. It's opening night, and once again my middle boy's the self-made star of the show, while his older brother, hanging back behind the curtain, isn't even in the cast.

The middle boy loves company, and in his haste to greet Dinah the very moment her car door swings open, he nearly kills himself attempting to dismount the rocket-rider while it's still in full flight. The big boy, however, glares at the offending vehicle. No longer a contented child entertaining himself with the hidden life of bugs, he suddenly transmogrifies into a slump-shouldered imitation adolescent. Luckily Dinah, entranced by the newest 3-year-old tale, hasn't noticed the sullen 7-year-old leaning against the swingset, clearly dreading the summons he knows I'm going to give him.

By now I'm accustomed to his toe-in-the-dirt, mumble-into-the-collar, one-syllable response to new adults, but I can't help feeling momentary irritation this afternoon. This is not a stranger, after all; this is my dear friend Dinah, a person he met the very day he was born. Dinah doesn't see my children often, but she loves them nonetheless. She loves them because they're mine, because she loves me. Would it be too much to ask for my oldest son to give her a small welcoming smile?

But this is an attitude as alien to him as it is native to his next-youngest brother. My firstborn doesn't think of someone as a friend just because friendliness is the feeling expected of him in a social situation. Consequently he's been the cause of more than one awkward moment at family reunions. A faraway great-great aunt will give him a hearty hug, and his arms will dangle uselessly at his side, his face growing redder and redder until he steps back and gasps for breath the second he's released from the embrace. This is an honest response, but not a response guaranteed to produce adult affection.

He's not a shy kid--he has many friends and almost always receives more invitations to play than he can accept in a single weekend--but it takes him a little while to warm up to people. From infancy he's always been reserved. Strangers would lean into his stroller and make goofy faces at him, but even as a baby he considered them gravely for a moment before deciding whether to laugh.

The next boy was exactly the opposite sort of baby. He bestowed his first social smile at three-and-a-half weeks and was barely two months old when he made a sound I'd never heard from him before. I'd turned away for a moment while a friend was peering into his bassinet, and when I looked up I saw something I've seen thousands of times since and still can't get enough of: the heart-lifting sight of my middle son, laughing.

It's no surprise that people adore this child. He'll climb right into their laps after he's known them 30 seconds. He'll gladly give a goodbye kiss to the check-out clerk or a jaunty wave to the crossing guard in the grocery-store parking lot. People I could swear I've never seen before greet him by name in the mall.

Like everyone else, I respond to him with wholehearted pleasure. But I have to admit that it's my older son, whose response to social chitchat is incomprehension or outright despair, that I truly understand. My hail-fellow-well-met middle boy is an apple off his party-loving father's tree; his slump-shouldered older brother came straight from my much darker side of the forest.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. My family tree has its share of party-loving people, too. My younger brother always greeted strangers with an open, interested gaze. Anyone who smiled at him got an enchanting smile in response. Old ladies couldn't quit kissing him; he'd wrap his chubby little arms around them and squeeze their quivery chicken necks. When our parents threw parties, my brother would walk from knee to knee, sweetly accepting treats like an open-mouthed baby bird. Watching him from the doorway, I always found myself doing exactly what my oldest son does now: standing on the chill outside of warm human conversation, glowering.

It's not easy for a solemn kid to have a cheek-patting cherub for a younger brother. There he'd be, this tiny kindergartner being passed from lap to lap by the eighth-grade girls outside St. Rose of Lima School, while I lurked in the bushes near the driveway, glumly waiting for my mother to come and deliver me from the penance of being a wan, gangly child whose golden brother was the male equivalent of Shirley Temple.

That's why I know how adults respond to children who greet them gladly and look them in the eye--and with what disapproval adults view children who don't come forward eagerly for that once-a-year elderly visitor's medicine-breathed kiss. And it's why I can't help but wish my oldest son had some of the sun that beams so easily from his younger brother: Let's face it, children whom adults approve have an easier time in the world.

But I know another important thing, too: I know that very few people are born with a natural ease in new surroundings, a natural grace among new people. Most adults, I think, were once children like my oldest boy and me: a little awkward, a little unsure. To make up for that lack of natural grace, they've had to learn a certain amount of social hypocrisy. They've learned to suffer bores smilingly, to feign eager interest in dull subjects, to hold their tongues in the presence of idiot opinions. Long ago they mastered the fake smile and the meaningless inquiry--"What grade are you in this year, dear? Do you like your teacher?" Probably without even realizing it, they expect a similar level of superficial interaction from kids.

I have to think it's better, in the end, to be the kind of child my first son is--a person for whom friendship comes through time and growing understanding, and not through mere proximity--than to be like all these adults who smile and smile and never know who really loves them. I want my boy to understand that there's more than one good way to encounter the world. It's wonderful to approach others the way my husband and my brother and my middle child meet people--head on and happily, with curiosity and good faith. But in human interaction there are other virtues, too, other ways of meeting the world--with hard-won honesty, for example, with care, and with the sense that the only things worth having are those that must be earned.

So when my son stands before adults tongue-tied and miserable, while his younger brother chatters happily away, I just put my arm around him quietly and wait for a graceful opportunity to set him free. I want him to learn to speak politely to my friends, it's true, but I don't want him to pretend they're his friends, too. Most of all I want him to know I'm proud of him exactly the way he is.


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