Kids, listen up. Leigh Newman shares a little wisdom about multiple-choice tests, stuffed animals and the secret hidden in every box of chocolates.
I am writing to children everywhere, though I am not sure if you even need it. You have access to so much knowledge that I no longer do, for example, how to hide in spots both so obscure and obvious that nobody can ever find you -- most especially when it's time to go to school. Or, how to sleep while sitting straight up in the backseat of the car, strapped into a safety contraption that has immobilized even your nose. Or, how to bend the laws of nature and transform the voices of shouting adults into the pleasant, windy roar that lives inside seashells. And yet, there are a few things I feel you should know as you continue on in life, things perhaps the other adults will not tell you:
1. The Wrong-Looking Correct Answer
Whether you like it or not, a lot of your life will be determined by multiple choice. There is a secret strategy behind "A, B, C or none of the above." One of the choices is a dummy answer -- one designed to look correct even though it is not. This will usually be the first answer you pick. If you immediately eliminate it instead, you will be left with three slightly wrong-looking but closer-to-right choices, significantly improving your chances of success. Once you have mastered this technique during testing, take it with you into the rest of your life. When choosing who you want to be friends with, for example, eliminate the obvious: (a) the one with the flippable hair, lip gloss and cadre of devotees. Go for (b) the girl with the imaginary friend or (c) the boy who professionally tap-dances. These are people waiting for a friend. They have been using that time waiting to think about how to best behave like one.
2. You Do Not Love Chocolate Milk
One of the biggest mistakes grown-ups make is that they think they love things that can't love them back. You may enjoy chocolate milk or an episode of "Dora the Explorer." But you don't love it. You can't call Dora in the middle of the night and ask for her guidance on your math homework, and you can't help Dora either. You can't show up at her door with Kleenex when she is sick or listen to her heartaches regarding the captain of the baseball team. Dora will not be there for you -- because she can't be. She is not alive. She is 45 minutes of lovely, engrossing television animation. (I know this is confusing now that TV characters speak directly to you, but trust me, they can't hear what you are saying back to them.) The same goes for chocolate milk. It is rich and creamy. It is delicious, but its purpose on the planet is not to help you through a rough day. It's there to fill you up, provide calories and make you a little crazy and giggly due to a completely enjoyable and acceptable sugar high. After that, the relationship is over. Once you understand that love is an exchange between two things that are capable of the emotion -- you and a parent, you and a friend, you and a dog or a cat or a gerbil -- you can save it for that. As for the rest of the stuff, feel free to take delight in it, but not solace.
3. The Caramel Is The Square
Some rules in life are very simple. They have no nuance or bigger meaning. And yet you must know them to be happy. Here is one: In any box of chocolates, the caramel is the square. When picking out a candy, you do not need the map on top of the box. You do not need to bite into every piece and examine the center. This is what the other children will be doing -- only to end up with the coconut or, worse, the maple cream, while you score the pure, perfect, salty, chewy nugget of goodness. Dive for the caramel.
4. The Asphalt Fall
The powers that be have somewhat recently layered many of the playgrounds of America with a thick, cushiony rubber so that when you fall off the climbing wall or the monkey bars or the roof of the playhouse (which, by the way, is clearly marked, NOT FOR CLIMBING) you will not crash to the ground and break your knees and teeth. While this is wonderful -- nobody ever talks about the great time they had in the emergency room -- it is misleading. The world is full of asphalt, packed dirt and rocky beaches. One day in the future, you will be running in three-inch heels for a bus, and you will slip. You will need to know how to fall without breaking your ankle or wrist. A bike ride on a gravel road can show you how to fall better -- as well as how to get back on the bike and keep pedaling, despite the raspberry.
5. Treat Everybody Like The Kids Of Your Parents' Friends
When it comes to weekends, you will frequently be forced to play with people you don't pick. These are the children of your parents' friends. You will be tossed in a basement with them. You will be shy or confused or have significantly shorter hair or the less-cool jeans. The sound of your parents and theirs laughing will drift down. One of the kids may ignore you and go on watching TV. You may freeze or stutter or even pray. Ultimately, however, you will have to pick up the LEGO set and start building a rocket or bounce on the trampoline. Because the point is, you may not like these children, and they may not be your best friends, but you must and will find a way to get along until dessert and coffee. The same holds true for later in life -- in the workplace, school or otherwise. There is no one you can't play with for six hours.
6. The Talent Parade
Everybody has something they can do. Soon enough, the prizes come out. Some kids start winning things. Some kids don't. Many kids stop doing what they don't win at and stick only with the things they do well. There will be the kid at school who draws, the kid who does experiments, the kid who jokes, the kid who lends money, the kid who eats the paper off a straw if you pay him a quarter. You can be these things. Or you can just be the kid who loves his family and his friends. You can be that kid. Nobody will give you a ribbon for it or ask you to stand up so they clap for you at an assembly. But it's enough.
7. Stuffed Animals Are Too Alive
Yes, they will protect you in the dark. Yes, they will get jealous and hurt if you snub them for Barbie or a robot that shoots real lasers. Hold them tight. Especially on days when the grown-ups decide to throw a yard sale.
8. Read Out Loud Once A Day
It is an interesting thing. For most of your life, the adults in your house read to you before bed. The ones at school make you sit on the carpet and read to you in class. Then suddenly one day, a teacher shows you how to read. For a year or two, you read out loud to your mom or dad or brother or neighbor or babysitter or anybody you can because the sound of the word -- that magical process during which letters become noises and songs and stories -- is amazing. Do not lose this. Do not hold the story inside your head where it is only a parade of silent sentences. Read it out loud.
9. Not Everybody Is Going To Love You
Nobody wants to tell you this because it's basically a flaw in the universe. Everybody is supposed to love you. But sometimes a few people don't. Sometimes these people are kids, and sometimes they are grown-ups or even teachers. You might think that this lack of love is a problem. But the problem comes up only if you run around like a ding-dong trying to make them love you or trying to be what you think they will like in order to get them to love you. This is exhausting and painful. Instead, give up on them. Find the people that do love you -- like me. I know I don't count because you don't know me. But, if you are under age 16, I love you. Ask the kids in my Sunday school class.
Leigh Newman is an editor at Oprah.com and the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home.
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