I try not to use the phrase, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
I hated hearing this – and I heard it often – when I was a kid. It felt as though grown-ups were hoarding all the good info. Like they knew the answers, but hid them. Like they didn’t trust us kids with the real world. It was a cop out.
Kids are capable, but they need a champion once in a while. I’m not talking about the expected types of support, like making sure you brush your teeth or getting you to your tournaments and rehearsals. Every child, and really all of us, need to feel respected by those who care for us. It’s important for kids to know they’re just as important in the world as we are.
There were a few grown-ups I encountered as a child that didn’t depend on a “Wait ‘til you’re older” gimmick. They would just tell it like it is, and although maybe it was occasionally a little more than I could handle, I am grateful for the insight I gained from those moments.
For a bit, during his college years, when I was probably about eight or nine years old, my Uncle Nick lived with my family. He was a cool uncle. Where my parents watched TV and listened to 8-tracks of Kenny Rogers, he played guitar – out in the yard – and listened to Talking Heads on vinyl.
At the time, the issues in my parents’ marriage had become the background, as ho hum as the bologna sandwiches on white bread. My uncle, though, could see them, and maybe even saw how they were affecting me and my brother.
Uncle Nick gifted us with an album: The Point, by Harry Nilsson. Here was a story of Oblio, a kid that didn’t fit in, who went out on a hero’s journey, and returned with the wisdom that we all belong. The soundtrack was extraordinarily trippy.
After we memorized every song and every word, my uncle asked me, “What do you think the story is about?” I recall being baffled by this question, not because I didn’t have a guess at the answer, but because no adult had ever shown that kind of curiosity in what I thought about anything.
I have no idea what I said. I do remember that conversation as the first time I saw myself as someone who mattered, someone with ideas, a person who could discuss things, like a grown-up. Without saying it, Uncle Nick showed me that I was more than just a kid. I was me.
Another such moment occurred when I was in college. In the days before blogs or social media or even email, I used to write, by hand, letters to my family. I loved writing, expressing the vibrancy of my young adulthood, sharing interesting vignettes about the adventures and characters of college life.
My aunt and godmother once commented on the letters I’d been sending. “You should be a writer,” she said in her Brooklynese, so “writer” came out more like “write-uh.” It was the first anyone had ever used that title on me. Much as I loved writing, starting in 6th grade with that poem comparing Spring to my budding womanhood, I’d never thought about writing as a part of who I am. I certainly hadn’t thought about becoming “a write-uh.”
I countered my aunt, probably with something like, “C’mon! It’s just a letter, Aunt Sarah.” She told me my stuff was at least as good as what she read in Reader’s Digest.
For better or worse, I heard this at a time when I was in the middle of a degree in Environmental Studies, so switching gears to become a writer was far off course, and too risky. I must have resisted my aunt’s idea, because she went on to say,
“I’m not saying right now, Meliss. You have your whole life. You’re talented, and you got a good head on your shoulders. You keep doin’ whatcha doin’. You got all the time in the world, Honey Bear…but don’t stop sending me those letters.”
Then, and sometimes still, I fall under the illusion that once you make a decision, that’s it. No changing your mind, no evolving as you go. An about-face would be failure. Does this ever happen to you? My aunt gave me a little glowing seed, the concept that I might grow into more than one life in this lifetime.
Good thing too. I’ve lived a few lives already, and I plan to try out a few more before I’m done.
Finally, here’s a story, not from my youth, but from just a few weeks ago. You might recall, I’ve been in a funk. In the thick of it, I called a very special person. I’d love to describe his place in my life, but it’s a long story.
Rick was dating my mom when I was around 12 years old. Their relationship didn’t last, but somehow, Rick’s love for me and my brother did. He went far beyond what anyone ever needed to do for two fairly ungrateful teens. His influence in my life is indescribable. I often turn to him when I find myself in times of trouble.
After a long talk, Rick, stunned to remember I’m in my mid-forties, suggested I was having a classic mid-life crisis. I wrote down his wise words even before we got off the phone.
I was complaining that I didn’t know what I wanted to do next with my life, that I felt flat and uninspired. I shared that I wanted to do something that made me proud of my life. Rick said, “You don’t have to be proud of yourself. You have to be true to yourself.”
Which gives me breathing room. Which gives me permission to be true to my month of depression. Which allows room for songwriting, even if the songs aren’t good. Which opens a window in the stifling cellar of self-judgment. Which creates freedom. Which is a blessing.
At a moment when he could have said, “wait ’til you’re my age!” instead, I was treated as an equal. By showing me respect, Rick reminded me to respect myself.
I arrived at this point in my life by kindnesses like these. Today, I can boldly claim my voice as a songwriter. I expect respect because I was shown I deserve it. What if these moments had gone the way of the standard grown-up cop out? Would I have seen myself as worthy?
It’s a true enough statement: “Forget it, kid. You’ll understand when you grow up.” Now that I’m in the ripe of my middle age, I look back and know that grown-ups were sometimes at a loss. I’ve even been that give-up grown-up a few times.
When I’m needing reassurance and inspiration, those moments of mutual respect bubble up like an underage sip of champagne. As an adult, I hope to offer that respect to the young people in my life, including my own inner little girl.
I don’t plan to go down as a cop out, that’s for sure.
What about you? Think you’re a grown-up yet?
Was there an adult who showed you the respect you deserved?
Tell me a little of your story.