I have a blogging friend who is a fantastic teacher. I wish I'd had a teacher like her. Her students adore her, know that she listens to them and that she sees them, truly and deeply. She acknowledges their existence and treasures their uniqueness. For some of them, this is the first time they actually feel heard, feel really understood, by an adult. Their parents see them primarily as their children, not always as real, unique, human beings. Other teachers might ignore them or let them just slip by.
My friend commented that, in general, “adults don't get to know children, beyond their own children.” You can read her entire post here. It's worth it.
I have addressed this idea previously when I wrote about my relationships with my own aunts, and now with my nieces, in my post on the joy of being an aunt when you don’t have children of your own. I never had an individual, one-on-one relationship with an aunt, though as an adult, when I first moved to this city, I got to know the aunt-from-another-planet more as an individual, and I think she got to know me more too. If only she'd been around when I was younger, she could have been a great mentor. I think I needed one.
As I've contemplated life as an aunt (in the family, or as an honorary aunt), and a never-to-be mother, and as my relationships with my nieces have grown, I've realised that this relationship is unfortunately not the norm. To have these relationships, parents need to see that there is value in it for their children. I don't always see that, and I don't want to "push in." Perhaps part of society's emphasis on the nuclear family, or the societal isolation of people without children, I find that parents can be quite possessive about their children, holding them too close, and not inviting others in. I can think of several motivations for this, but the outcome, I think, is sad for everyone. Parents miss out on a wider support network. Children miss out on learning and growing in different ways. We miss out on sharing our experiences and love. The reality is that children have enough love for everyone. They're not going to love their parents less, simply because they love their aunts or uncles. They're going to be happy and open, and their world will expand.
So I feel rather sorry for those children who don't or have never had an aunt (or uncle) who understood them, who could mentor them, who might see the world differently than their parents, or have different experiences that she (he) could share with them. I feel sad that I can't have that relationship with more children/young people, as so many of my nieces and nephews grow up overseas. I think of friends who don't have the chance to have this relationship at all. Not all of us can. Many people will tritely say that we should surround ourselves with children, but it's not always that easy.
I feel sorry too, for the mothers who miss out on playing that role, but simply don't have the time or energy to give. A comment on my previous post noted, " Now I have my own child, I really miss my special time with my nieces and nephews."
I think too, that the relationship is a special one, because mostly, it's a role of love and joy and connection, rather than of duty, responsibility, or stress.
I have wondered too, if in extolling the virtues of fabulous aunties, I'm just trying to boost myself, to make myself feel better about not being a mother. So I was really glad to see that my friend expressed similar thoughts to mine about adults interacting with young people - or not. Perhaps particularly, I felt pleased to see my view validated by a teacher, someone who is experienced in working with children and their parents.
(Perhaps a little sadly too, the fact that she is also a mother probably contributed to my feelings of validation. It does make me feel a little sad that, in our society today, I feel this need for validation, that I feel exposed by suggesting that an adult without kids might have a different but still close, in ways more intimate, relationship with specific children. It’s true, though - I do feel vulnerable. I choose carefully what I say about children, when I am around adults who are parents, and I choose carefully whether I even make a comment, depending on who I am with. I choose very carefully my words and phrasing, feeling so open to criticism, waiting for the hurtful comments. Yet – as I’ve written elsewhere – shouldn’t my comments be just as valid as those of any other person?)
Back to my point (and my friend’s point). Adults don’t tend to get to know children other than their own. And even then, some of them don’t really get to know their own.
My friend added,
She didn’t say, “as a mother …” and I love her for that. She is wiser than that. I wish everyone was. She emphasised simply our shared humanity. So often, this is forgotten.“Can't I approach someone, some underage someone, with love and respect simply because of our shared humanity? Perhaps even more so, because we are called to protect the vulnerable.”
But I digress again - apologies! In our relationships with people of younger generations, perhaps as an aunt or uncle (by blood or marriage, or through friendship as an honorary aunt/uncle), I think that we are privileged to be able to hear their thoughts or dreams, their hurts and their hopes. No, it is not the same as having my own, but that's exactly the point. It's different. And it's not all about me. It's about them. If I can give them something they don't get in their relationships with other adults, then that is a privilege.
I feel very grateful to have these relationships, even if I see these special people only once a year (if that often). I’m learning, too, to feel grateful for playing a part in their lives, at a time when they need it. I'm learning not to feel hurt if our relationship alters as they grow and change and become more independent, establishing their own support networks, spreading their wings, hopefully with a little bit more wisdom or self-belief or courage as a result of my relationship with them.
I see them. I saw them. I see them still even though they may no longer need me as much. In turn, they have seen me, too. And that really is a gift.