(Note: for the sake of privacy—and my lousy memory—all names have been changed)
My mom volunteers in the nursery at church: every Sunday, she and two other women spend two hours in the company of around a dozen or so one-to-three-year-olds, playing games and having snack time and the odd one-minute lesson on topics like “I can be nice” and “Jesus loves me”. So I was pretty excited when she mentioned that one of the usual helpers was out sick that week, and could I help out? Heck yes I could! I like kids, especially the little ones. If you’re eight, and generally have things like sentence structure and bladder control down, we can be pals, sure, but just resign yourself right now to the fact that you aren’t my favorite age group. The under-four crowd is where it’s at: enough verbal skills to get by, but enough babbling that after a while you can sort of vaguely tune them out and go “That’s nice, dear” while playing catch with tiny bean bags. Plus, they give better hugs. It is a Fact of Life: tiny children give the best hugs in the world. Seriously.
So, I head over to the nursery. Sister Van der Whatsit is already there, along with one or two children, who haven’t yet allowed their parents to leave. There isn’t much for me to do, so Sister Van der Whatsit and I make polite chitchat: oh, yes, I’m Sister So-and-so’s daughter, home for the summer, how long have you lived in Provo, etc. etc. Mom shows up, and more kids start arriving: they generally fall into two categories. The Runners jet off to do their own thing, playing with My Little Pony dolls and racecars and those twisty wire sets with the wooden blocks on them (you know exactly what I’m talking about; they are practically required by law in every pediatrician’s waiting room). The Weepies tend to do just that: they cling to the trousered or stockinged legs of Daddy and Mommy, screaming “No!!!!” with anguish, or curl up in the laps of the nursery sisters, sobbing heavily. On the less dramatic end, Weepies may just faceplant on the carpet, ignoring everyone while they handle their Sadness. Either way, nobody wants much to do with me, except Pete. Pete is around twenty months old, and blind. He’s quiet, generally content to play with the toys that have buttons or make sounds, and has decided that my legs are sufficiently squishy to make a good plaything. It’s companionable, really. Pete does his thing, and I do mine, which basically involves looking at everyone.
Eventually, most of the Weepies calm down and start to play. One of the Runners—Jimmy—is racing around me, pushing a mini shopping cart filled with bean bags. He’s like a tiny Grand Prix driver, making complicated turns, and always managing to stop on a dime so as to avoid hitting anyone. Every now and again, he’ll stop near me to empty out the tiny shopping cart, handing me bean bags one at a time. Once emptied, he refills the cart again, taking great delight in hurling the bags. At the same time, one of the quieter Weepies starts playing with Pete—nicely, I’m relieved to see. This week, everyone’s being pretty good, but one of the Runners, a beefy boy of almost three, tends to steamroll over the other kids, and I’ve gotten rather protective of Pete.
Finally, it’s snack time, and Mom flicks the light off and on to signal clean-up, complete with that horrible song (“Clean up, clean up, everybody everwhere…” good luck ever getting that out of your head). I sit between Racecar Jimmy and the quiet Weepy, Sven, who has become considerably livelier now that grapes, crackers, and apple juice are in the cards. The three of us sit at the table, taking a little: who likes grapes, who prefers strawberries, who has strawberries in their garden at home. Then, I ask Sven how old he is.
“I’m two!” he proclaims proudly, showing off two tiny fingers. Jimmy is not pleased.
“Nuh-uh, I’m two!” he responds, making a face. I try to explain that they can both be two years old—“you have that in common, see? It means you’re alike!”—but it is on. For the rest of snack time, Sven and Jake are engaged in a battle for my attention.
“Do you like my pants?” Sven asks, tugging at my sweater.
“Sure thing, I think they’re swell,” I respond. There’s a tap on my other shoulder. It’s Jimmy.
“Do you like my pants?” He’s using his Batman voice: a full-on, Christian-Bale-Batman growl. I’m trying to fight the urge to cry with laughter, and it isn’t going well.
“Absolutely, dear, they are quite nice,” I manage to choke out. Pleased to have garnered such a reaction, Jimmy speaks in Bat-voice for the rest of snack time.
Once the crackers and juice have been put away, Sven and Jimmy forget their differences in that way only the very young can manage, and spend the rest of the time racing that mini shopping cart around the room. Pete and I find each other again; this time, he’s gotten ahold of a tiny farm set, complete with a cow that pops out and moos when you press a button. The continuous mooing provides a soothing contrast to the crashes and bangs and renewed sobbing of those Weepies who know Mom and Dad are almost here and just can’t take it anymore. Of course, the parents show up and take away their kids, who are now clutching a tiny bag of fruit snacks and a scribbled-over printable of a smiley face that reads “I can be happy”. I want a bag of fruit snacks, but Sister Van der Whatsit doesn’t offer, and I don’t want to be the overgrown child who takes fruit snacks from toddlers, so I don’t ask.
It was a pretty great experience. At school, and in the singles’ ward, there are precious few opportunities to spend time with small children. It’s a shame, because they are a pretty fun group. And while I seriously doubt that I have the fortitude to work with small children on a larger scale, two hours a week of toys, snacks, and coloring? Count me in.