“I worry about exposing him to bands like Journey, the appreciation of which will surely bring him nothing but the opprobrium of his peers. Though he has often been resistant- children so seldom know what is good for them- I have taught him to appreciate all the groundbreaking music makers of our time- Big Country, Haircut 100, Loverboy- and he is lucky for it. His brain is my laboratory, my depository. Into it I can stuff the books I choose, the television shows, the movies, my opinion about elected officials, historical events, neighbors, passersby. He is my twenty-four-hour classroom, my captive audience, forced to ingest everything I deem worthwhile. He is a lucky, lucky boy! And no one can stop me.”
-Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, page 49.
When you’re ten years old, there’s nothing better than being home alone. Sure, the first few times can be quite scary, but after a while? You get used to it. You know to make sure there’s some yummy snacks in the pantry, your favorite drink in the fridge, and a good movie playing on TV. You don’t have to be afraid anymore because you know that your parents will be back later that day and that if you’re lucky, they’ll even bring something back for you from wherever it is they went.
I had been left home alone countless times before, so when my parents told me that they were going out to dinner with my aunts and uncles, I just said, ‘great, bring me back something good’. I didn’t really put much thought into where my sisters would be staying, let alone my four other cousins. So when my parents stated that we were all going to be staying at my aunt’s house together, I grinned. It would be like one big party! It was the perfect time, too, because we were just a few days shy of Christmas so there were plenty of snacks in the kitchen.
“Awesome. What time are y’all leaving?” I asked my mom, craning my neck to see her.
She patted my head.
And a few hours later, they were gone.
The older kids, which were just one of my sisters and one of my cousins, were upstairs playing videogames, while the rest of us five kids were downstairs sitting around the Christmas tree. So once we were all comfortable, they all turned to look at me expectantly. You see, I might have only been the oldest one present by a few months, but to them, those few months were equivalent to years. They looked up to me and listened to what I had to say, usually coming to me for advice and looking up to me. It was a good feeling, to be honest. They asked me questions and wanted my advice, and I got a kick out of it all. They asked me what my favorite band was? I told them the best band I could think of. They asked me what my favorite color was? I told them black. They complained about their parents and their strict rules? I babbled out some nonsense about responsibilities and doing the right thing. Anything I said, they ate it up. It was amazing. It felt as if I held so much power in my hands, like everything I said would actually make a difference of sorts, even if it was just in my cousins’ lives. The first few minutes it was fun and it kept me entertained, but after a while I guess it just dawned on me. The things I kept telling my cousins to do and say, the way I kept telling them to act? It was all wrong. See, there I had a chance to help them in some way, even if it was in the smallest possible way, and I was going at it in all the wrong ways. I had the chance to mold them into something. It might seem like such a little thing, since it was just that one night we spent together, but the thing is, kids as young as they were are incredibly impressionable. Tell them that a fat old man hands out gifts to kids all over the world in one night and they’ll take your word for it. Tell them it’s a good thing that there’s a tiny winged woman that steals your teeth and gives you a lousy quarter in return and they’ll be ecstatic for their teeth to fall out. Like I said, impressionable.
I had a chance to mold someone, a chance to change something. Sure, it might have not made a huge difference, and the ‘effect’ may have just lasted a few days, weeks at most, but it was still something good that I could do. So after a short trip to the kitchen, I walked back into the living room and handed out a candy bar to each one of them.
“Tell me something important. I don’t want to hear any nonsense; I wanna hear the important stuff.”
And so it began. One by one they each started telling me things that meant something to them; fights with best friends, bullies in their grade, problems at home. And anything they said, I thought deep and hard about it, slurping some apple juice from my juice box, and stroking my chin the same way I’d seen some actors do in TV. It usually took me a few minutes to come up with answer, and even then, I usually danced around the subject and yammered for a bit, drawling out my answers and trying to give them a specifically vague answer.
And yes, I’m aware that my dillydallying wasn’t necessarily what my cousins needed to hear, but I couldn’t feel bad about it. I saw their smiles when I told them what I would do in their situations and their giggles whenever I told them of a similar mistake I had made, and I just couldn’t regret anything.
For some reason, even after all that bad advice I gave my cousins, they still kept coming back for more. Whenever you give advice to people, even if it’s the worst possible advice that they could be given, they will take into consideration, wondering if maybe, just maybe, there’s a tiny chance that you’re right. That your advice might actually work. And when those people are children? Well, they count on you being right. So yes, maybe having kids rely on you and hang onto your every word might be a good thing, but it is also an awfully lot of pressure to put on yourself. Yes, you get to help mold their minds into something you hope will be better, and you might stuff all the information you think is worthy into their flexible minds, but then again, maybe you don’t know what’s best for them, and maybe it won’t all work out for the best. But helping mold a kid’s mind and filling it with all the things you wish yours had been filled with? It might not be the best or most forethoughtful thing in the world, but it sure is a lot of fun.