Today I met a toddler.
‘No shit’ I hear you say; “you work in a pub,” “you live in the vicinity of people and therefore families and small children.”
I know. The place is child and dog friendly and there will be various interesting types to be met in such an establishment on a regular working basis. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, however, such a little boy can grab the heart strings of anyone fascinated by child’s play.
In the course of a few hours a child will interact with so many new things and learn in each and every moment. Not everything is totally new, but the repetition is going to solidify their understanding in each turn. For example, watching this toddler repeat after his mother in sounds without the words. ‘Bubble’ became many ‘bub-wul’-s (over and over and over and over…) and ‘frog in a bog, bat in a hat, snap, crackle, pop and fancy that’ became something like ‘ohg-woag, annht-nanht, shrnn-ahp-bhap, mha-nha nn-nnna-nat’. Everyday is a constant stream of this. The result is kids holding court with themselves in a string of noises and points that are all fairly clear, just entirely nonsensical.
You can see it on their faces too. If you’re watching. That moment when they stop staring at you (the stranger) unsure and waiting and instead have a look that says they’ve got it. They’ve figured you out. They’ve figured the game out. Figured out what you’re communicating to them. A smile cracks the o-held mouth and they start wiggling around and talking. Just random noises, but they’re talking to you so sure in their conviction that they’ve got this and the message is totally clear.
The parents among you now say ‘aaahhhh- but you forget the times when something new scares them and they become shy and timid’. Children are not always so certain and interactive with strangers? It’s just such a time I am actually writing about.
He wasn’t scared of me mind. Oh no. I play a game of hide and seek using some of the lost and found sunglasses and suddenly I am his new best friend.
Instead it was a time that struck a different kind of chord with me. It’s in the purview of one of the issues I hold dearest to my heart. Yet one, where in my own white-ness, I cannot always be so certain.
Today our wee chap met his very first black person. Maybe. Mum and Dad did not confirm, so it’s anyone’s guess.
So the toddler is knocking around. He can walk and he’s settled in the environment enough to get curious about what’s round the corner from his table. Off he goes to navigate the terrain with everyone (all of 4 tables of customers) watching him go. There is a black couple finishing up their post-meal coffee, ready to go out into the rainy summers day. He spots them and stops for a second. He hasn’t been totally confident on this wander; he looks puzzled at every stranger (none of them have played hide and seek yet). It’s either unfortunate or indicative that he pauses at the black couple.
Like everyone else, they were watching him too. When they seem him pause, they glance at each other and nod in that way that shares a common truth. The gent decides to say it aloud. Whether to clear any caution of the white people around, or to invite the parents to confirm or deny, or perhaps even for his own solace who knows.
“He’s never met a black man.” As they get up to go, the gent offers his hand to the wee boy. I don’t know if he wasn’t sure what that’s for though, but in any case he didn’t shake. He ignored the movement and held the o-mouth staring up into the gent’s smiling face. Still smiling he said, “oh dear.”
Whether because the music had gone off or because it was awkward, the room was awfully quiet. So I broke it, encouraging him to say hello and asking if he could wave demonstrating with the gent how to do it. The moment was totally saved when his dad laughed watching his son stare at us bemused. Just a child’s timidity.
Just as children learn in every moment, so have I today. For me, this solidified the importance of exposure to our world’s diversity. Every child should meet people from different places with different accents, and languages, and skin colours. The better to learn them when they get older and show compassion to people beyond the confines of physical similarities. It should happen young and as often as possible.
It also gave me a new and ever confused appreciation of how difficult is to navigate the world when there are racial disparities- the undesirable remnants of our horrible histories. Questioning ones own position in life because you know that the ancestors before you, who have given you DNA and so bind you in resemblance, may have been seriously nasty buggers. The children of now, young and old, struggle to navigate a way to meet and greet each other. If it were only down to our biology, and the only reason we paused is because instinct tells us to be cautious of different, it would be far easier.
That, can be laughed off. The wee boy today may have a fairly easy negotiation of his unneeded instincts hereafter. Society will not make it easy. Perhaps as he gets older he’ll pick on the societal disparities and fall into the trap of following them. Hopefully, exposure to our world’s beautiful diversity will allow him to see the pit and skirt it. He’ll become the next generation fighting to make things equal.
I wish more people would address it head on. None of this, awkward silence. Raise your voice and encourage change, even if that just means encouraging your children to say hello to strangers. It feels awkward that every kid may have their first-black-person, first-asian-person, first-white-person and even more so for whoever these ‘firsts’ end up being. The awkwardness is a truth of navigating our world that we cannot avoid, and yet the occasions are always ones that need to happen.