I don’t remember the first time a tiny hand slipped into mine and melted my heart forever. Maybe it was the summer I taught swimming lessons at a day camp for low-income kids and helped many shaking-like-a-leaf kindergartners float for the first time. Or maybe it was when I started helping with worship care at church and “taught” a class of three-year-olds, which really meant we played with dolls, read books, ate snacks, and colored pictures. Either way, the innocent, unwavering devotion of children has fundamentally changed the way I view affection.
I posit that certain stereotypes about children are true: they are often sticky, their noses always seem to be runny, and they always need help tying their shoes. And, they exhibit the proverbial childlike faith in the goodness of people. When you are a teacher, or a babysitter, or a nursery caregiver, you become their world in whatever place they associate with you. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing this. There is almost no greater joy to me than having a wriggling mass of preschool bodies enter my church classroom and swarm at me, worming into my lap, grabbing at my hands, and hugging my shin, the only part of me they can reach. I think a child who is not your own may just be the best medicine for stress relief.
I don’t have any children, nor do I want them yet, but I think there’s something magical about having the privilege of loving other people’s children. The one who, shyly, from behind his mother’s knees, sees you at a community event and incredulously exclaims, “Hey! You’re from church!”—amazed that you can exist outside of the place he knows you, not knowing how validated you feel that he recognizes you. The one who comes in every Wednesday and beelines it for your lap, unaware that the weight of her small body has you beaming inside. The ones who, only a day after being chastised for not paying attention, collectively launch themselves at you in a group apology hug that nearly knocks you over, oblivious to the smile on your face and the lump in your throat. This is affection in its purest form.
I don't offer physical affection easily in most circumstances. I've always had anxiety about holding hands because of how much my palms tend to sweat. I start to get fidgety if my husband wraps an arm around my shoulders while watching TV. And ask him about how awkward our first kiss was—awkward enough that I apologized and claimed I had “forgotten how.” I've fruitlessly poured out words onto sobbing friends who likely needed nothing more than a reassuring hand rubbing their backs. But the children I have come to love take me out of my discomfort and force me to give in to touch wholeheartedly. How can you resist an uninhibited tiny-toothed grin? I think it’s impossible. And I think if I can remember this lesson the next time a friend is suffering, the next time I encounter someone feeling lonely, or the next time I experience either great joy or great loss; if I can remember their ardor and offer freely of my touch; if I can reach out, sweaty palms and all, I will be a better person indeed.
Inspired by a prompt from: