I absolutely adore my nieces and nephews. I’ve been a Happy Auntie since I was 7 ½ years old – making me one of the youngest aunts in my social circle. (My oldest nephew just turned 18 last year and I was 100% not prepared for that realization.)
He’s not my only nephew, though – in fact, I have a total of five nieces and five nephews now, and not a day goes by with them visiting me that I don’t learn something new about myself, and about life in general. Just as often as they remind me that I’m not really ready to be a parent yet, they also inspire me to try new things and be a better person.
What, specifically, have they taught me?
1. Be fearless (at least most of the time).
Most of the kids are completely at peace with the idea that “trying new things” sometimes means “getting hurt” – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try those new things anyway. Sure, sometimes they are actually scared and won’t do the new thing unless one of their brothers dares them to – but as many times as I’ve turned down a challenge in my life, these kids have motivated me to take those challenges.
With the kids, it usually means something like drinking a shot glass full of hot sauce, or doing a backflip on the trampoline. But for me, it means things like try for that job you might not get, or actually ask the store associate for help instead of walking around like an awkward mess. Okay, so I haven’t exactly got that fearless thing down yet, but they inspire me to try.
2. Everyone (and everything) is special if you look closely enough.
Have you ever talked to a child about something that seems a bit ridiculous to us grown-ups? They don’t see it as ridiculous. It’s completely normal for kids to believe in fairies and unicorns and all that other stuff that we, as adults, think is impossible. Kids see the magic in the smallest things, and even the magic within themselves, and somewhere along the way, we lose that sense of wonder – but my nieces and nephews remind me that we don’t have to.
Just watching the kids play with their broken colored pencils (because I’m far too much of a control freak to let them break my “nice” ones), their hand-me-down toys, and even the strangers that I would have otherwise looked over… It reminds me of the playful innocence that I once had, too, and really makes me appreciate the miracles that exist – even if they’re not really fairies, unicorns, and dragons. To a child, everything is magical until proven otherwise.
3. Trust your intuition.
My nieces and nephews don’t always think things through all the way. It’s not their fault, though – the impulse center of your brain isn’t fully developed until you’re about 25, so realistically, I’m just starting to outgrow my impulsivity. (Or, at least, the bits of impulsiveness that my OCD and anxiety didn’t already squash.) The kids, on the other hand, will do things totally reckless and carefree – and, in most cases, come out better because of it.
Sure, sometimes your gut instincts lead you astray. I’ve fallen victim to poor intuition a few times (usually because I saw someone as special when really they were just manipulative). But the kids teach me that it’s worth taking a chance, just to see if you were right. And, if you don’t get the results you wanted, at least you learned something.
4. Be yourself – unapologetically.
The kids don’t let others influence who they are. They haven’t learned the societal rules that keep us “in place” yet. (Well, maybe the oldest one has, but we’re just going to pretend he’s still little, because I’m still not ready to accept that he’s taller than I am yet.) The kids don’t care what strangers think of them – they know these random people mean very little in the grand scheme of things.
It took me a long time to realize that you really don’t have to care what strangers think of you, and if those strangers judge you for being yourself, that’s not someone you want as your friend anyway. One of my biggest hopes for my nieces and nephews is that they never stop giving themselves permission to be true to themselves – and that they keep reminding me that I have permission to be myself, too.
5. Happiness should be chased.
There was a long period in my life when I felt that happiness needed to be earned. I thought that, if I did all the right things, I would be happy – without having to try. As adults, we learn that there are things we have to do, and be happy manages to get cut from most people’s lists. But why? Don’t we all deserve to be happy?
Watching a child play, it becomes apparent that you will sometimes need to create your own happiness. It doesn’t always come from doing the things you’re supposed to do, and in some cases, those “have-to’s” are really all in our head. Truthfully, being happy with your life is really the only thing you have to do – otherwise, you’re going to be miserable. It should be obvious, really, but it’s something that somehow escapes us once the pressure and responsibility of being a “grown-up” takes over.
6. Self-expression is essential to happiness.
Those of you who have read a few of my posts probably know that I’m big on the idea of journaling – but, realistically, there’s more to expressing yourself than just writing some words down in a book. Kids don’t worry about writing it down, out of sight of others. In fact, they’re usually the first to say exactly what’s on their mind (at least, if they haven’t been conditioned otherwise). If they’re tired, they’ll let you know. If they’re sad, they’ll cry. If they’re mad, they’ll make it pretty obvious they’re mad – even if you’re in the middle of a public place and would really prefer they weren’t so “expressive” at that exact moment.
As adults, we’re often conditioned that our emotions are to be kept to ourselves, or maybe shared with those closest to us and hidden from “public view”. When you ask someone “How are you?”, the socially acceptable answer is always “Good, how are you?” – even though that’s not always the truth. When did it become more important to make other people comfortable than it did to make ourselves comfortable?
7. Love has no ulterior motives.
My nieces and nephews love being dropped off with me, even though they know I’ll probably be working most of the time they’re here. They know what I do (okay, maybe not the specifics – there’s no way I’m talking to them about sex positions, obviously), but they loved me even when I didn’t have such an awesome job. Back when I was working a hundred hours a week* just to make $200, they loved me just as much as they do now that I can afford to spoil them senseless. It’s never been about money to them.
(* – I don’t think I’ve ever actually had a hundred-hour week, but I did do a stretch of three or four 76-hour weeks in a row, and let me tell you… It sucked.)
8. Give what you can give – sharing is joy.
I know, not all kids have mastered this one – but my nieces and nephews are some of the kindest, most generous kids I know, and it’s something I strive for in my own life. If I had a dollar for every time they offered to share the last cookie with me, or when they colored me a picture just because they wanted to give me something, or when they brought me “wildflowers” (aka weeds) or “gemstones (aka yard rocks)… Well, I’d never have to work a 76-hour week again.
Truthfully, most kids start out like this, but somewhere along the way, we forget that giving brings us so much joy. As we grow up, we start to devalue the act of giving to people who don’t do anything in return – after all, “why should we” share the little we have with someone who wouldn’t share with us? But, realistically, giving freely to someone else inspires them to give freely, and it makes the whole world a more loving place. Even if all you can give is advice and hugs, your life will be so much better if you do.
9. Forgiveness is one of the greatest skills we can have.
Kids don’t hold grudges, and if they do, it’s not for very long. It’s not because they’ve forgotten – I still remember many of the bad things that happened to me when I was young – but it’s because they know that bad situations aren’t permanent. When a child gets punished (within reason and within the confines of the law), they’ve usually let go of any resentment by the time they’re not in trouble anymore. Adults, on the other hand, hang onto the negatives and let them define situations that they probably shouldn’t.
Being able to forgive others is just as important as being able to forgive yourself. And, truthfully, that’s another thing that kids are usually better at than the adults in their lives – when’s the last time you heard a kid talking about how mad they were for something that happened ten years ago? (Assuming, of course, that they’re at least ten years old.) Most likely, you haven’t, unless their home life has conditioned them to think that they should feel guilty about it. Why, then, do we teach ourselves that we should be ashamed of our pasts?
10. Be honest – it saves you a lot of trouble.
Kids don’t start off knowing how to lie. My nieces and nephews are really bad at lying, actually, and the younger ones won’t even try. They don’t sugarcoat things. They won’t tell you a half-truth to spare your feelings. And they sure don’t hide the things they do if they’ve done something wrong – just ask a four-year-old if they did something wrong, and they’ll either tell you no, they didn’t, or they’ll cry – letting you know that they did, in fact, do the wrong thing.
Likewise, you can trust the things that kids tell you, because they don’t see it as a risk of hurting your feelings. If a child tells you that you look nice, you really do look nice – at least to them. If they tell you they accidentally broke your favorite cup, then they mean they’re actually sorry that they broke it, and they wanted to save you the pain of finding out about it without warning. And they understand that it takes more work to make up a story than it does to just tell the truth.
11. Your imagination and creativity are meant to be shared with the world.
Kids don’t filter their creativity before letting it out – at least, not until an adult tells them they should. They believe that every idea they come up with is incredible, and with a little work, can be that pure magic we were talking about earlier. Not only are they willing to share their creativity with you, but they expect you to have the same level of wonder that they have – and they’re disappointed if they find that you don’t. (Truthfully, you should be disappointed, too – creativity isn’t just for kids, it’s a big part of effective problem solving.)
As a writer, this resonates really strongly with me – but it took me a long time to realize that my childhood dreams of getting paid to write weren’t silly, they weren’t unrealistic, and they definitely weren’t a waste of my time. I just wish I had realized sooner that being a “grown-up” didn’t mean giving up the things that made me happy – it just meant finding a creative way to be happy with the things I had.
12. Believe in yourself, even when no one else does.
My nieces and nephews are lucky enough to have a strong support system at home, but not everyone believes in them as strongly as our family does. There are always other kids who think that they’re “weird”, but they don’t care. They know what they’re good at, and they know how to harness those skills and make them even better. My oldest nephew actually had a sponsorship from a big BMX bicycle company for a while, because he had the courage to pursue his dreams – and that’s part of why I decided to pursue a future in writing. If he could become a professional cyclist at 15, there was nothing really stopping me from being a writer except for myself.
Confidence is something that we’re taught is a bad thing, as it can border on arrogance if not “contained”. But truthfully, if you’re good at something, you deserve to be confident and proud about it. You deserve to do the things you’re good at, and to cultivate the things you’re not so good at. Kids understand the idea of practicing, and they’re probably going to try as hard as they can to be as good as they can at as many things as they are interested in. Why not? Confidence and determination make the difference between success and failure. Shouldn’t we all strive for success?
13. Always dream bigger than you think is possible.
Kids dream of things like becoming an astronaut, or a doctor, or even a princess or a knight (even though, realistically, that’s not something you can easily “become”). Adults tend to put their dreams through some type of metaphorical probability filter, which really is just a way to excuse ourselves from not trying. I had this filter installed for me at a young age, and it led me to believe that being a writer was not a realistic career objective – so I gave up for a long time.
It turns out, if you keep your dreams big, the answers to your prayers will probably be closer than you imagined. Kids don’t sell themselves short. For the kids who aren’t filtered, they often find a way to make their dreams happen – and they’ll probably get a lot closer, a lot quicker, than those of us who have to return to our dreams later in life. If I had never given up on my dreams of being a writer, I probably would have published a few novels by now, but instead I’m just (relatively) getting started. Please, don’t ever tell your kids that their dreams are unrealistic.
14. Tomorrow is for excitement, not for worry.
Have you ever noticed that kids are rarely worried about what the future holds – unless Christmas or their birthday is coming up? Their innocence tells them that tomorrow is another day, and while they’ll most likely want to do the fun thing sooner, rather than later, they know that tomorrow is better than never.
They also don’t waste their time worrying about the things that could go wrong, because they’re too busy looking forward to the things that could go right. In most cases, anxiety is pretty much nonexistent in kids. They don’t have time to worry. They’re too busy loving their life and being amazing.
15. There’s always more time for work – and never enough time to have fun.
Kids are master procrastinators, but unlike their adult counterparts, it doesn’t come from a sense of perfectionism – it comes from a different set of priorities. They know that there’s always going to be more time to do the not-fun stuff, and while they do understand the importance of deadlines and due dates, they aren’t worried about it, because they know how important it is to be happy. If the things they do don’t make them happy, they don’t do them, unless someone else makes them do them.
Maybe it’s not so great to have this exact mindset as an adult, but being able to distinguish between the things you actually have to do and the things you’re “supposed” to do because it’s the “adult” choice is a skill that most adults have forgotten about. Not everything that we “have to do” is something we really have to do, and if working those extra hours doesn’t bring you joy – why are you doing it? (Admittedly, I’m still working on mastering this one, but I’m getting a lot closer, with the help of my nieces and nephews.)