My niece, Kayla is turning 3 next month. Over these almost 3 years, I’ve had the privilege of having her at my home very often. Looking back, I’m surprised myself, at how I changed from being a remote 17 year-old uncle who minded his own business to having her as a very important person in my life. I didn’t think I was about to undergo a sort of apprenticeship. Now when I hear the words “Kayla’s coming home”, I grin from ear to ear like a crazy nut, almost unconsciously.
Kayla was born slightly smaller than the average size — She’d wear clothes meant for newborns when she was a year old, and now, she wears clothes meant for 1 year-olds. But don’t let her size fool you. She has always been very bright. And I guess because of that she has also always been very mischievous — She already knew plenty of tricks when she was just a little baby — Speaking in my Pa’s spirit, “She knows how to play politics”. Little girl always knew how to get what she wanted. When she isn’t playing politics, she’s always doing something that will put you on endless streaks of laughter. That’s our Kayla.
The day she was born, the excitement blowing in the family wind was beyond words. Ma and Pa were officially grandparents, big brother had leveled up into a father, my siblings now uncles and aunts. Everyone in the family was there in the maternity house to share the joy, except me, who was over 100 kilometers away in boarding school with no idea what she looked like, stuck with an old-fashioned Nokia phone that could only call and text and play a Snake game when I was bored out of my mind.
Looking back at how I was then is like watching another person — Like watching a character in a movie you know, only that he’s played by a different actor. Frankly, I wasn’t moved by the news. I reacted rather emotionlessly. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a change in the family. Maybe I was too used to how things were then, how I couldn’t picture my brother as a dad, and perhaps, me as a real uncle.
My first time seeing her was, I think, a few weeks from that day. I had never really had a baby close in the family, so I guess she was all that I expected of a little baby — Crying, sleeping, feeding.
By the time I got out of school for good, her looks of course, had changed quite a bit. And I wasn’t used to having a baby at home. I didn’t even know how to carry a baby. And I was always told to keep a watch on her.
“You know, I’ve never seen you talk to Kayla,” said Ma.
“Why would I want to talk to a baby?,” I thought.
I wasn’t exactly living the brightest time of my life. I guess that happens after you’ve become so accustomed to living a certain way; every hour spent in the company of very close friends. At home the world I lived in was made up of my bedroom and occasionally the kitchen, when I needed a cup of coffee. Walking up and down the stairs, I couldn’t help but notice her staring at me when she ate or played her toys in the living room. “She loves looking at you,” my siblings would say, “She must like you.” And I would only chuckle. I never thought kids would want to get near people like me.
Over time, she learned to smile more, she learned to crawl, she learned to walk. I had a habit (I still do) of not keeping my bedroom door fully closed, and Kayla had a knack of storming in when I least expected it. She’d always give a beautiful wide smile when she saw me, and that touched a vulnerable part inside of me. I never realized how a kid’s smile could make my day a lot sunnier. You can tell we got closer as time passed.
It’s a little funny to say this, but she was like a best friend at home. Watching after her was no longer a chore, but something I loved to do. Playing with her was my quick way of elevating myself into a great mood. Being with her as she learned to talk was definitely pleasurable. I slowly understood her ways of saying things, and I had fun keeping her company.
Kids learn by observing, (adults do too, only to different extents depending on the individual).
There was this one time at my sister-in-law’s family gathering — Her grandmother wanted to give her the usual kisses. “Kayla, come here,” she said. Kayla responded with a loud “Apaaa??!” and laughed. Poor sister-in-law was scolded for that. Kayla picked that one up from my side of the family. Gosh, everything’s a joke to Kayla.
Kids are quick at learning because if they don’t learn the ways of the world, they will not survive. So by observing the adults’ speeches and actions, they pick up whatever they could — Some good, some not so good. But that’s alright, because they aren’t afraid to try. If they fall, they stand back up and learn to walk again.
And kids are very playful when it comes to learning. Until now, Kayla still hasn’t fully understood how to call me “Uncle Aiman”. But that doesn’t at all mean that she hasn’t tried. She had been calling me names that she thought was right. My calling name for her literally evolved from “A’-ing” (Wtf?) to “Man” to “Ka-Aiman”. The last one was her best achievement so far, and it remains the same until today.
She pronounced “cat” as “tata”, “pacifier” as “deesh”, “bird” as “bad”, “cartoon” as “ketoon”, “Oink” as “O-ink”. There were many more, needless to say. But “tata” is just hilarious.
As Kayla grew, she cried a lot more — Because she started wanting things. Whatever it may be — Toys, candy, or her Mom to be around. When she cried, I wouldn’t worry so much. Because in a minute or two she’d be laughing and playing around, screaming “tata” whenever a cat was around.
The beautiful thing about kids is that they remind us, to, well, be a kid. Or at least not be an old fart mentally. Like I said earlier, kids aren’t afraid to try things. They aren’t afraid to make mistakes when they’re learning to do things better. They love to create, no matter what an adult actually thinks about their “work”. (I’m starting to think about the box-spaceships I used to build with my brother when we were little.)
We, on the other hand are always too afraid to just take the first step. We’re frightened by what people might think or say about us, we’re afraid of being embarrassed, we’re afraid of making a fool out of ourselves.
But in order to grow, those are exactly the things we need to experience in the short term.
Also, kids remind us to not take life too seriously. Unlike us, they don’t like to stay in a gloomy world — They go through life playfully, they run around, they have the energy to do so many things, because fun is a priority for them. What about us? Why not smile and laugh more? It may not be easy at times, but it’s a whole lot better than wallowing in a bad state of mind. It’s amazing when you think about it — How a simple act of smiling literally changes your biochemistry.
And fun — For most of us, this is the word that’s been sucked out of our lives. When we hear this word, it makes us feel like we’ve lost it a long time ago. I remembered an interview in which the renowned physicist Michio Kaku advised us, “If it’s not fun, then don’t do it” — The thing that you do, you’re willing to work on a single problem for hours on end, you’re willing to stay up late and wake up early —Because it’s fun.
If writing isn’t fun for you, do something else. If it doesn’t make you feel alive, don’t do it. If you want to have a great day, do less of the things that you hate and do more of the things that you love, that help you reconnect with your inner child.
And the lesson that kids teach us is, above all, patience. Kids are gonna be kids, and as adults, we have to let them be. Let them have the play they need. Even better, make the time to play with them.
It takes tonnes of patience to clean up after a kid — After she spreads her toys around, after she eats, after she makes a mess out of herself. It takes inner strength to remind ourselves that we’re dealing with a kid, and to therefore not lose our temper.
Kids don’t understand how to communicate as well as we do. So they do so in ways that they do understand, be it by having tantrums. Very often the easy way out is to yell at them. Sure, it may keep them quiet in the moment, but in the long run it becomes a habit, and the kid’s going to accept that as who you are. And no doubt, that will affect your relationship with her.