So we’re on the beach in Mexico–six adults and three kids under the age of 2–and around us are the blaring sounds of a cheap PA system, a beach volleyball tournament, the ocean, and black market commerce. Every couple of minutes, we are approached by one of the few non-tourists on this beach–the ones who live, no doubt, in the rougher parts of this coastal city, the places covered by dust not sand, where opportunity is limited and the tourism industry is a cause for both hope and resentment. Out here on beaches smelling of boat drinks and sunscreen, the hustlers of Rocky Point scout out umbrellas and beach towels for prospective buyers. They have with them handmade jewelry, hats, trinkets. Low-cost goods sold, probably, for small margins. And here’s what they hear from us:
No, thank you.
No, thank you.
Actually, one of the couples did end up spending a few bucks on a flower tiara. But mostly we went on with our lives. We ignored. The persistence of the sales pitches, and the near constant barrage of no’s, clearly made an impact on my son. Because about halfway through our second morning on the beach, Declan started preemptively pointing to jewelry hawkers from afar and, in his most emphatic voice, barked “No!” to each and every one of them. I couldn’t help but laugh. Declan was reading unmistakable social cues and parroting the adults. Our vacation was a week ago, but Declan hasn’t forgotten. He still looks at me sometimes and says “beach” and I’ll say “yes, beach” and then he’ll point off into the distance and declare to me, the dog, or the empty space in front of him, “No!” He does not want any Girl Scout cookies.
As you might expect on a trip featuring two toddlers and a nine-month-old, there were a few tears. Not all of them from the adults. When the other kids cried, Declan had an interesting reaction. He empathized. Or, if that sounds like an exaggeration from an overly proud parent, he at least raised his eyebrows, turned down the corners of his mouth, and let out a sad awwwww sound. I’m not sure if the crying troubled him, or if he was just trying to parrot what he heard from his peers or his parents. Whatever the case, it was touching. He seemed to care. He was in tune with what was happening around him. Just like he was on the beach with the jewelry sellers.
There is, of course, another way to look at this, which is: it’s slightly terrifying that kids this age are so observant. It means we’ve reached the time when they become our mirrors. What they say is probably, in some ways, a direct reflection of what we say or how we act. And let’s be honest, sometimes they make us sound ridiculous.
In Mexico, I was struck by how ridiculous all of my “no’s” sounded coming out of Declan’s mouth. I wonder if I was, unknowingly, more dismissive than I should have been of men and women in a Mexican resort town who are just trying to make a living amid American tourists who, too often, want to benefit from the beach fantasy aspect of the local culture without being bothered by the realities of its existence.
For years I’ve thought that looking in a mirror–really looking— can be one of the most profoundly affecting experiences of a person’s life. Now I do it every day.
Kids cut right to the core of us. They want to be us, and in their attempts, expose who we really are.