Last Tuesday, July 6, was my daughter Charlotte’s ninth birthday. And this year, we did something different. We had a birthday party.
This is not to say that we never celebrated her birthday in previous years — we did, but as a quiet family affair. We’d cook a special meal, maybe get a cake or some ice cream, let her open gifts at the dinner (or breakfast) table. Last year we went to Discovery Kingdom, just the four of us — Charlotte, her parents and her little brother. But those big events where fifteen kids come over, bury her in presents and tear up the house … we’ve never done that. And Charlotte has never pressured us to do that. A birthday is a big deal for her, and for us — but not a big production.
This year, though, we changed the script a little. In the last several months, she’s become more outgoing, and gotten closer to some kids in the neighborhood, and she wanted to do something with them involved. So between her and the Supermodel and I, we put together a plan — a trip to the Micke Grove Zoo north of Stockton, followed by a picnic lunch at the adjacent park. Charlotte was allowed to invite three friends, as that’s what our minivan will hold in addition to her and us (she ended up inviting two), and we informed her friends’ parents that all expenses were paid: park and zoo entrance fees, food, presents, the works (a good move, as their families are probably poorer financially than we are, which is saying something). At 9:30 Tuesday morning, we hopped in the van, picked up Daniel and Sammy, and off we went.
And I learned a lot that day — not just about party planning either. There were spiritual lessons as well …
In general, the party went very well, and much fun was had, though in retrospect we made two small errors. One was buying too much food — none of the kids ended up eating that much, even of the cake, so we hauled more than half of it home. (Four days later, we’re still working through it.) The other was that we spent almost four hours at the zoo and the park before heading home, and all the kids were a little tired and cranky by the end. We should have cut it off at three hours, looking back. But only two oopses isn’t bad considering we’d never done it before.
(I, personally, made a third mistake: forgetting to bring the camera. This became apparent when we visited the zoo’s special lorikeet exhibit, and the small tropical birds began to congregate on Nina’s head …)
Still, what I took away had more to do with the social dynamics of the kids. Nina is a teacher, so she watches children interact all the time. Me, I’m a guy who hides in his office and types on a blog. I deal some with Charlotte and her friends, but nowhere near the extent that Nina does — and that’s in addition to her career in the classroom.
On the flip side, her training was in education; mine was in a) communication and b) theology. So as I watched the three kids tour the zoo, eat their lunch and play on the jungle gym (or whatever they call those big plastic castles in a moat of tan bark), I was noticing the ways kids act differently from me and the other “Gr’ups” (Star Trek reference, yes). For instance:
Kids are eager to see and to try new things. At every exhibit in the zoo, they oohed and aahed … then began running to the next one, while Nina and I (not great walkers, between Nina’s CMT and my bad feet and ankles) were just settling in. They wanted to experience everything there was to experience, as fast as they could, no matter how much the dawdling adults wished they’d slow down just a notch.
Kids don’t discriminate. At least, Charlotte doesn’t. I mentioned that her two friends that came along were named Daniel and Sammy. That’s right — two boys. (Technically, Sammy was an alternate — Charlotte invited a female friend, but she wouldn’t come unless her 5-year-old brother was invited too. It was a deal-breaker.) At no point did either of the boys worry about getting cooties from Charlotte. Furthermore, Daniel is African-American and Sammy (as well as the girl whose spot he took) is Hispanic. It didn’t matter to Charlotte, who resembles a miniature Gwyneth Paltrow. She doesn’t care what their skin tone is; they’re her friends, and that’s that.
Kids forget slights. Now, Charlotte is not the easiest person to get along with. She’s blunt, she hates being ignored, and her tendency to argue is pronounced enough that her parents sometimes call her “the little lawyer.” (Feel free to read “Daddy’s girl” into any of the above.) As such, she can rub people the wrong way, and a couple of times Daniel and Sammy were duly rubbed. They’d move away for a while, sulk … and a few minutes later, they’d be playing with her again. Same thing happened when one of the boys got on Charlotte’s nerves. Whatever had occurred was lost to history; no grudges were held.
Kids take achievement seriously, but not fatally. There was a running (literally) bit where Charlotte, Daniel and Sammy would race each other up the three spiral slides in the big jungle gym/castle thingy at the park. Each time someone won, there would be complaints about how one slide was shorter or another was too slippery or someone jumped the gun. Then they’d all go back to the bottom and start the next race. They all wanted to win, but nobody was broken by losing. It was kept in perspective, you might say.
Kids don’t force themselves to do things that aren’t important. As soon as they found out that “be sure to clean your plate” wasn’t on the agenda, they happily abandoned their chicken strips and potato wedges and bolted for the play thingy. When it was okay to run, they ran. When there was license to talk loudly, they didn’t force themselves to be quiet. They didn’t change their behavior to try and impress their peers, possibly because they knew their peers couldn’t care less. They just lived.
I watched Charlotte, Sammy and Daniel gawk and eat and play and even pout. And I thought about Jesus’ words to His disciples, when they asked Him who would nab the prime real estate in the kingdom of Heaven:
He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4)
What does becoming like a little child mean? Watching those kids on Tuesday, I realized that in part, it means being not only willing but enthused about exploring the new things God has for us, even if it means leaving the old and comfortable behind. It means not seeing others as this or that race, or gender, or tax bracket, but seeing them as God’s creation just like us. It means forgiving early and often, and keeping no record of wrongs, not even in our memories. It means doing our best, but not getting bent out of shape if someone else’s best is better. It means not just not majoring in the minors, but abandoning them completely, and living the life God gave us to live.
These are things I need to develop in my own life. Maybe you do too. I know the American church would be a different — and friendlier — place if all of us were willing to accept whatever new things God has for us, if we didn’t discriminate, if we didn’t hold grudges, if we kept our competitive instincts in check, if we only worked on loving God and loving people (on which, Jesus said, the entirety of God’s will for us is based — Matthew 22:37-40). I think the church would be better off acting like little children instead of hide-bound, “upright” adults.
And I know for a fact I would be better off acting more childlike too.