Bobby stood on my front lawn staring into the bushy juniper. Every now and then, he took up a new position and continued to survey the foliage.
I thought he was looking for a lost ball, but it emerged that Bobby had seen a tiny bird in the tree and was worried about it. Then I saw it too: scrawny, gray and sparsely feathered. It slipped down a branch, then down again and again until it was on the ground.
“What should I do?” Bobby asked. I looked around to see who he thought could offer answers.
“It can’t fly. And the cats might get it if it’s on the ground. What should I do?”
His eyes met mine. He was looking to me for wisdom and expertise. I looked away. This was as close as I had come to a bird since age 6, when I buried a dead one in a shoe box.
“I could take it home and look after it. What do you think?”
I looked directly at Bobby. He is 15 and has one of those cool haircuts that are flat on top. I caught my reflection in the window. I am 34 and have finally changed from long brown hair to a layered style verging on the sophisticated.
Then I knew why Bobby was asking me. I’m an adult. I am more than twice his age and he is still young enough to think that means I know everything..
I am often taken by surprise by children who expect me to act like a grownup. I don’t feel like one. I still stomp in mud puddles and only stop short of soaking my shoes through when I remember who is going to have to clean up later. Climbing onto the kitchen counter remains my preferred method of getting to the stuff on the top shelf. I can barely wait for bedtime and another chapter of Pinocchio.
I never thought of myself as an adult until my 4-year-old, Jamie, started to differentiate between two distinct classes of people. Suddenly, I found myself with power; the vast power that comes with age and parenthood. I proclaim bath nights. I dictate how many cookies are enough. I control the remote.
I told Jamie he could ride his bike between the fire hydrant and Brian’s driveway. When he reaches the prescribed limits, he turns around and comes back as though I had erected invisible force fields on the sidewalk.
The power extends beyond my own kid and is sometimes intoxicating. I informed the little boys in my neighborhood that they could not bring guns into my backyard. As they file in, they lean their sticks, water pistols and toy machine guns against my fence before coming through the gate. I watch in amazement. They believe me. They do what I tell them!
But while the mantle of authority can be fun, I am not completely comfortable with it. Who am I to unilaterally decree that junior kindergarten must be attended every day even if staying home to watch Paw Patrol seems more appealing? Does age alone give me the right to limit the number of times clothes can be changed in one day?
I’m most uneasy when a child appeals to me for help. Sometimes it is not an endangered animal, but a hurt child. I should be comforting, all-knowing and entirely capable. So why do I feel so unsure of myself?
A few days ago, my 8-year-old neighbor Matthew fell off his bike. When he opened his mouth to cry, blood poured out. I should have been consumed with compassion but I was actually kind of grossed out. Between hiccups, Matthew told me that his tooth was loose from the fall. Plus: he was locked out.
I started to panic: What if his mother didn’t come home? What if he didn’t stop crying? What if he didn’t stop bleeding?
Tears rolling down his cheeks, Matthew looked at me, waiting. I could see I was being called upon to be a grownup; to know what to do, to make him feel better, to fix it. And I could see how scared he was.
So I lied; I told him everything was going to be fine. Then, mimicking the look of calm assurance I’ve seen on TV moms, I gave him a hug. The crying stopped. When I gave him a Popsicle to hold against his bleeding gum he almost smiled.
Matthew was not nearly as surprised as I was when both the pain and bleeding stopped. He had faith in me. After all, I am a grownup.
Perhaps you never outgrow the self-doubt and the fear, but you do what must be done despite them. You live up to the expectation in a youngster’s eyes. You handle the situation. You feign competence.
You become someone the less-capable can depend on. And even though you know that you don’t know everything, even though you feel unsure, you are prepared to offer guidance, support and warmth. You forget your own feelings and deal with theirs.
Maybe that is what being a grownup is all about: being willing to deal with someone else’s problems, despite your own.
Or maybe not. I’ll have to ask my mother.