When I was a child, the border between the natural world and me was so thin it was transparent. I looked into my dog’s eyes and felt that I knew her. I knew I wasn’t a horse, surely, but also, I was a horse—I ate salad for lunch without utensils, galloped down the street, whinnied. I spoke to trees.
Shortly after entering my teenage years, I grew up, grew out of all this, stopped growing. My dreams became human dreams—love, money, career, family. I was never a horse anymore, or a dog, or a cat, or a bird; I only spoke to people. I was a human woman, and an intensely practical one. I had set aside childish ways.
In 2017, decades into my adult life, I stepped in as editor-in-chief of Stone Soup, the magazine of writing and art by kids under 14. While I was a writer and an editor, writing by kids—or for kids, for that matter—was decidedly not in my wheelhouse. In fact, kids were not in my wheelhouse.
Like many other childless adults, I was awkward around them: I forced a smile, asked the usual questions (How old are you? What’s your favorite color?), hesitated to pick them up when they cried. I knew I wasn’t “good with kids”—and watching my husband horse around with his young cousins over Christmas, I wondered if I ever would be.
It never occurred to me that the idea of being “good with kids” was itself a problem. That the phrase implied there was only one way to be “good” with kids, as if all kids liked the same things and had the same interests. That to be “good” with kids, I would need to be someone else around them—not myself. That I would need to lower myself to their level—in the same way that texts are “leveled” to match a child’s reading ability, “reducing exposure to books that might surprise or challenge [them]” in the process.
When I first started reading submissions for Stone Soup, I remember asking myself, Is this good “for a kid”?
Over the next three years, I read thousands of poems, stories, and personal essays by kids, and I looked at hundreds of pieces of their art.
I saw that kids could be wise:
It is said in the Hindu scriptures that only if you open your mind to knowledge will you receive the knowledge. I understand how this can be true. When I was like my parents— not believing God—I didn’t know the things I know today.
That they could make surprising observations, ones that made me see the world a little differently:
[The coin] was a memory from a war of great misery, yet it still gave me a happy feeling. It was as if the memory wanted to be happy.
That they could write rich, imaginative, non-didactic fables and long, moving, complex stories. That they could make me cry. That they could write political allegory. And visionary poems. And poems that haunted me and ones that I wished I’d written.
That they could feel and think and see as deeply, or sometimes, often, more deeply than any adult. Because they were closer to the world: to nature and to animals, to the imagination and the soul. To God—whatever that is.
I realized how wrong, how misguided my initial criteria for acceptance to the magazine had been. That I was not accepting what was good “for a kid” but rather what was good. Period.
In 2020, I became a mother.
At the time, I was living in Santa Cruz, California, a hippie-ish beach town; I was surrounded by mothers who practice RIE and Montessori parenting. Through them, I learned to treat my child, then just a baby, as an individual, a person worthy of my respect.
Before picking her up, I asked for permission. If I needed to interrupt her play, I apologized. When I buckled her into the car seat, I explained where we were going. When she babbled, I listened closely, and replied seriously, so she would know I had heard her, even if I had not understood.
I began to notice how many adults treated children as if they were animals. How they talked about my daughter as if she wasn’t present when she was right there. How they commented on her looks when we walked by—“How adorable! Just beautiful!” How they called her “fussy” when she was simply having a bad day. As if they—those same adults, rolling their eyes at my daughter’s outburst over my choice of snack—had never cried over something similarly trivial that had pushed them over the edge at the end of a long day.
And through all this—parenting and reading and observing—I realized that I could be “good with kids” simply by being myself with them. That this was, in fact, one of the highest forms of respect. There is a reason children identify so closely with animals: They too are treated as Other, and inferior. I began to see how important my newfound approach to kids was in allowing them to feel respected and recognized—and (hopefully) in shaping them into conscientious adults. I began to see my work as a parent and editor as political.
The best way to select work for the magazine, then, was to be myself—to rely on my own literary and artistic sensibilities, and to treat each submission with respect. At Stone Soup, we take kids seriously; we see their art and their ideas as real and worthy. Like most “adult” publications, we don’t accept everyone who submits, in order to uphold the value of the accepted work. Or as one parent wrote in a personal letter to me, “Stone Soup treats young writers like human beings, not intellectually deficient and emotionally fragile adults.”
One day in 2022, a few months after my second child was born, my husband paid me the highest compliment he could have given me: He said until he’d seen me parent, he’d always thought there was only one way to be “good with kids”—to be silly, permissive, and fun. He said I had shown him a different, quieter path. One that is true to who I am.
Now, I watch my daughter whinny and gallop. I watch her talk to rocks and trees. And on days when I am having trouble relating to her, when I feel myself rolling my eyes at her latest outburst, I read submissions for Stone Soup and am reminded that her inner world is as complex as mine. As yours. That we are all of us, animals and humans and dirt and trees and sofas and sky, here together.