One of the nice things about having kids that I didn’t know about ahead of time is the way that sometimes the things that I don’t really like about myself just get edited right out and replaced with something that looks more like the way I’d like to be.
There’s also the way that the things that really annoy me about myself or (ahem) my husband turn up in them too, sometimes even more so. Of all the things the kids do that get Josh annoyed the situations most certain to push his buttons are the ones where they’re exhibiting infuriating behaviours inherited straight from him. At these times I always have really sympathetic and helpful responses like ‘Why are you complaining? I have to put up with two of you doing it!’
Anyhoo. One of the things that I’ve always wished was different about myself is that I’m hopelessly shy. If you don’t know that about me it’s because as an adult I’ve developed more conventional social responses and can act like a normal person but believe me, it’s not my natural state. Right from young I realised that many people – seemingly all of them – were so much more comfortable than I was in more or less any situation that involved anyone other than my close family or two or three best friends. Bizarrely I was always happy in any sort of performance situation and that’s still true – give me an audience of five hundred, just don’t expect me to make small talk with one harmless but unknown individual. If there’s a personality type known as EIHSO (Extremely Introverted but Huge Show-Off) I’m the poster child.
As my children started making their way in the world I hoped they wouldn’t feel as ill-equipped and uncomfortable as I always have but I had no idea how to guide their development in this direction or even whether such a thing is possible. So far my first child is, I suspect, following in my footsteps (including the
huge show-off confident performer aspect) and my second is more or less average for confidence and social ability, taking into account the obvious but hopefully temporary handicap of being a ten-year-old boy.
And then there’s Noah. If all the confidence lacking from me, his big sister and all the ancestors who gave us this trait right back to Adam was packaged up and funnelled into him it still wouldn’t adequately explain the level of comfort he feels in the world around him. Given that he’s only six and I’m in charge of keeping him safe his confidence is downright scary.
When you grow up on the side of a mountain where everyone you ever clap eyes on really is a friend of someone in your family and ‘town’ is a place where your mum can reliably park right outside the shop she’s going into even on Christmas Eve, you might well develop a slightly optimistic belief in the extent to which you’re being watched over and cared for by the universe in general. Or maybe you just have to be born with it. Either way, it wasn’t until Noah’s fourth birthday that his extreme confidence made itself obvious because we’d never taken him anywhere big enough before.
For his birthday I took him on a day trip to Auckland. We went to MOTAT and as I paid at the entrance he went running in. There were more people in the immediate vicinity than he’d seen in his life up until then all put together but he wasn’t daunted. He was attracted like a magnet. He headed straight for the crowd and didn’t look back. I wasn’t expecting that and had to leave the counter to run and catch him before he disappeared entirely. As the day wore on with us surrounded by people and Noah not even a tiny bit interested in not losing me I was torn between admiring his lack of anxiety – he was only four years and one day old, really not big at all – and wishing I’d brought some sort of collar and leash arrangement.
On the way home we stopped at McDonalds for tea. There was quite a queue so I told Noah to find us somewhere to sit while I got our food. The next time I looked around for him, had he chosen one of the many free tables? No. He had cosied up to an elderly couple drinking coffee and was telling them his life story. It was my turn to order then so I was distracted and when I looked around again his new friends had left and Noah had found more. He was now sitting at a large table right in amongst a big family with many boys and not only was he carrying on with the story of his life, or something, he was sharing their chips. I was beginning to feel completely surplus to requirements and was wondering why I hadn’t just put him on the bus and sent him to Auckland by himself.
A few weeks later I took him to a playground. The only other people there were a couple of teenage girls up in a crow’s nest not-so-subtly eyeing up some teenage boys over on the rugby field. Next minute Noah, with the whole empty playground to choose from, is up there too chattering away enthusiastically to two very surprised fourteen-year-olds. Once I started noticing I realised that this is what he lives for. He will talk to anyone. He happily initiates conversations with people much older than himself and with nothing obvious in common. If there’s a big group of scary-looking teenage boys hanging out being cool on the merry-go-round, that’s where you’ll find Noah. He runs off to have new adventures and make new friends without so much as a glance back at me.
I don’t do any of these things easily (or at all) as an adult and certainly wouldn’t have as a child. Teenagers terrified me. So did other kids. So did adults. What if they talked to me? What was I supposed to say? What if they were mean to me? I only pretend not to still feel that way. But Noah, he’s better than me at being friendly. He’s better at making small talk and making friends, even if they’re fleeting. The day will come when I don’t look around quick enough as he zooms off into the welcoming world and I will lose track of him and I’m pretty sure that when that happens I’ll be the only distressed one. I worry about that a bit but it’s still worth it many times over to know that, whatever he struggles with in life, the almost crippling shyness that’s always been my burden will not be his.