Yes, you read that right. I dyed my 13-year-old niece’s hair purple. Yes, it was her idea. And yes, she ambushed me to do it.
I walked into her house with my 7-year-old nephew after picking him up from camp and settled in for what I thought would be a quiet day of lunch and crafts. Those illusions were foiled when she walked into the kitchen.
Me: “What would you like to do today?”
Her: “You are going to dye my hair.”
Me: “Say what?”
After multiple protests on my part and a confirmation text to her mom, we headed to Wal-Mart to find the desired indigo and amethyst colors. Then we returned home and I dyed her hair. And guess what? It was awesome!
We talked, we laughed about my technique, we troubleshot when I got dye on the floor, and in the end, even though we both looked like Barney, we got the job done.
Afterward, I checked in with my nephew, who was busy creating bead bracelets and cylindrical boxes out of his mom’s business cards. I could not keep up with his creativity, but I could help him find uses for his boxes and get more material. We took a break and tried to walk the cat, but quickly went back to his project.
I also have a 5-year-old niece that lives in town, and when she and I hang out, it is a totally different animal. We are outside as much as possible, and if we are inside, we are being silly and bouncy and there may be dress up involved.
The point is, every kid is awesomely different, and that keeps me on my toes. Especially this year, when I took on a new adventure as a reading helper to first graders. Once a week, I would meet with two groups of four, and we would navigate “magic e” and other tricky phonics. It was the highlight of my week, and I was always coming up with ways to engage them and keep them interested.
On day one, the first thing I was asked when I sat down was why my tongue had a rash (taste buds?). It got more interesting from there. What is that orange thing in your purse? (A tampon.) Can we have candy? (No, no, and no.) Can I call my mama on this phone (no, but she did anyway and set off a school alarm)? So, I would turn the tables and ask them questions too. One week, I asked them to tell me something special about the person next to them. That worked great until Kasey* told me that what was special about Hannah* was that she tattled on people.
The following week, I asked them one good thing that had happened over the last few days. This is when I started learning about these kids. One little girl was excited because she got to have dinner with her father whom she had not seen in a long time. A boy in my group described the yummy breakfast that was served at the hotel where he lived. Another girl told me about her baby brother being born – then all of a sudden, they all had new babies. Sometimes it was a challenge to get back on the rails after sharing time.
I usually went home feeling well out of my league but determined to connect with the class. Over the course of the year, as I continued to spend time with “my kids” I realized having fun together is only half the job of an “auntie.” The other half, maybe the most important half, is to listen, not overreact, and to meet children where they are. When Lance* told me he didn’t have a dad, I asked him about his mom. When the girls made fun of Alex* for liking pink, we talked about his favorite shade. When Jasmine* would ignore me and pout, I would wait it out until I could see her start peeking out under her arms, then welcome her back to the group.
I totally made it up as I went along, and sometimes, many times, I probably got it wrong. But my heart was in it, and I think they sensed that, which is why they hung in there with me week after week. By the end of the year, I went from peeking in the door to being the mystery reader, celebrating holidays, and becoming an honorary member of the class.
You’ll never go wrong by trying to reach a child, even if the age gap is 30+ years. In fact, you may end up feeling pretty right. And, if you’re lucky, you may even get a little purple.