Dear neighbourhood kids:
It’s a beautiful summer evening, and your parents have sent you out to play in the cool twilight. Although some might be distracted by a passel of young ones a couple yards away, I find your chatter soothing, and your antics amusing. Your parents, I know, have told you that I work from home, and no doubt have also told you not to disturb the Bird Lady, as you insist on calling me – not that I mind. I know you find my birds engrossing, and it cheers me to see your tiny faces peering through the hedge and a high-pitched voice piping: “Hi birdies!”
And I honestly don’t mind a little distraction from my work. While you play happily together, blessed by the accident of fate that put your parents in neighbouring units, I ply my trade educating the public about how humans manipulate their fellows into horrible scenarios, from a phone huckster scamming a retiree out of her life savings, to a political leader advocating violence and using shameless emotional blackmail to sway an election.
You little ones are just learning the rules of human interaction: throughout the long summer days I’ve listened to you discuss fairness, and rules, and cooperation, establishing your boundaries – and learning how to establish those boundaries. Today, one of your parents must have warned you to keep within the area of lawn right behind your unit; one child, the rule-tester of your clique, stood just a few feet behind the superannuated hemlock bush which divides your bit of lawn from mine.
“See?” she challenged the older one, whom I had heard proclaim earlier that she’d been left in charge: “I’m standing on the line.”
The older child, of course, had to go tell mom, and then you kids learned the lesson of Sorting It Out For Yourselves For Once. What you don’t realize is that you are learning these lessons at lightning speed; later in the evening, I heard you playing peacefully and even someone saying they were sorry.
I might be peering into the darkness of how people’s boundaries can be broken down – how people can be fooled, how people can be trained to accept the unacceptable – but you kids fill me daily with the light of hope. Your small cadre of a half-dozen half-pints has been a regular reminder of just how natural respect, candour, and empathy really are. The two-year old tumbles and scrapes her knee, the eight-year old is instantly there to kiss it better while the five-year old runs for the nearest adult. You’re a miracle and a microcosm of human interaction in all its frailty and strength, and you amaze me.
For the record, I don’t mind if you kids cross that imaginary line to say “hello” to my birds; it’s just that your parents don’t want you running rampant throughout the entire neighbourhood at dusk. And it’s very, very important that you learn the rules. It’s also important that you learn the dynamics of who gets to say what the rules are, and when – as you learned this afternoon, no sooner than a line gets drawn, someone will want to cross it, and if your only authority is to call for Mom, it’s best to let the whole thing go and go blow some bubbles instead.
Dear children, as I’ve written this, bedtime has come, and you have retreated somewhat unwillingly inside. It’s a beautiful evening, and in the sudden calm, I look up at the darkening sky and fashion a special wish for you tonight. My wish is that you shall always be able to play freely, to express your own boundaries, and keep on learning, growing, and rebelling. Never stop testing the limits. I pray that by the time you reach university, the skills of identifying those who would keep you from thinking independently are taught in the curriculum at every school. I hope that someday, all children may have a beautiful evening, like the one you had tonight.
Good night, dear children,
The “bird lady” next door
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