I help my nephew slip off his dark blue crocs and hold his hand as he gets used to the shift of energy from hanging with me to playing with kids his age.
He will turn three in March and I’m lucky enough to spend time with him a few days a week while his parents work. I treasure the time we have and love taking him to some of the places I took my kids when they were little. Today, it’s the indoor playground at our local mall.
There are about a half dozen kids ranging from baby to age three. They stumble around, bumping into each other, and climb on the soft playground equipment designed to look like animals in a forest. There are glass butterflies hanging from the ceiling, rainbow-colored lights, and the delicious smell of fresh baking pretzels.
When my nephew feels ready to join the play, I take my place on the sidelines with the other adults. We exchange polite smiles and watch these little humans burst with energy and excitement. The kids follow each other in circles, take turns on the slide, climb on everything, fall down and get back up. My nephew beams at me, running occasionally into my arms for a big hug before returning to his play.
Although we are indoors, it’s a wide-open space and most of the young parents and their children aren’t wearing masks. I don’t think much about it until a set of grandparents arrive with their small granddaughter. Both adults walk slow, the grandfather with a shiny black cane. They are wearing high-quality masks—the kind you wear when you must be careful. They sit as far away from the others adults as possible but are nearest to me.
The child, probably close to 4-years-old, has light brown hair pulled into high pigtails, blue jeans, and a bright pink princess t-shirt. As she slips off her sparkly silver shoes I hear her talking in a low excited voice.
“I hope I make a friend!”
“I hope so too,” her grandmother says. “But it’s okay if you don’t.”
She hugs both her grandparents and walks toward the other children. Sitting close together and holding hands, her grandparents exchange a weighty look. They appear worried and protective. The small girl runs a lap around the playground and spots a girl her age climbing up the slide with messy blonde hair, a purple mermaid t-shirt, and striped socks. She stands at the bottom of the slide and calls up to her.
“Hi! Do you want to be my friend?”
Her grandparents beside me lean forward.
The blonde girl smiles wide as she slides to the bottom. She runs to where her mother sits nursing a younger sibling. Without saying a word, she rummages through her mother’s purse and pulls out a mask with tiny pink flowers.
She puts it on.
She runs back to the other girl and hugs her.
“Let’s play!” she says.
It was such a simple act I could have missed it if I’d not been watching so close.
Yet it felt enormous.
This young girl saw a friend with a mask and put on her own mask to join her.
The innocent kindness of children never ceases to amaze me.
Her guardians and I exchange teary smiles.
I watch the two girls for several minutes. They laugh, climb on the giant brown bear, jump off the blue spider, and go down the slide. They hold hands forming a tight circle and sing “Ring-Around-the-Roses,” a song about the Great Plague. They fall down giggling, hugging, and rolling together on the cushiony ground.
As my nephew and I walk out of the mall, I can’t get the scene between these two girls out of my head. It’s probably not a rare thing to witness with children, but in our messy often polarized world it felt like a magical gem. It made me think about how kindness can really be so simple.
It really can be as easy as meeting someone where they are.
One moment, no more than 30 seconds, created a rippling impact I can still feel.
I strap my sweet nephew into his car seat and kiss him. This might be a messy time to be starting out little one, but I have so much hope for your generation.