The Secret Life of Children
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The Secret Life of Children

As a mother, I thought I was supposed to know my kids better than they knew themselves. So it's a shock to learn when I've been wrong.

Knowing My Children

Haywood and I had been married for almost a year before he thought to mention that he knew how to play golf. In fact, he went on to say, he'd been a pretty good golfer in high school. And actually, now that the subject was on the table, he was thinking of taking it up again. Today. Haywood and I did not marry in haste -- we'd been together for almost four years by the time he started keeping golf clubs in the trunk of his car -- and I knew him as well as I knew anyone on earth. But in many ways he was also, I realized then, a profound mystery. I hadn't been there for his childhood, hadn't read the same books or lived in the same landscapes or loved the same friends, all of which meant I'd probably never completely know my own husband. To understand another human being inside and out, I decided, you have to be present from the very beginning. You have to become a mother.

Which is how I came to the conclusion, long before I ever actually became a mother, that I would know my children better than they knew themselves, if only because kids grow up and forget all kinds of things a mother records on her heart. I would be the loving scientist and they would be my adorable subjects. No secret would escape me, no subtle detail would fail to capture my attention.

Any veteran parent could point out the monstrous holes in this theory. For one thing, caring for small children can be a long, boring slog, and much of it is not worth noting, much less etching into memory. Still, once the boys came along I was sure I had them thoroughly reckoned, could predict their every reaction, fathom their very depths. I didn't even waver when Sam, our eldest, was not quite 5 and a neighbor called to tell me that he had joined her daughter and another child in writing on her privacy fence with Magic Markers. I denied it: "Sam would never do that," I said without hesitation. I knew my child. The most he'd done was watch.

"Well, Sam's name is written all over my fence," the neighbor pointed out, "and since none of these other kids can read yet, I feel pretty sure they didn't write it for him."

Piano Lessons

Okay, so maybe I didn't always know every little thing about my kids. But apart from the occasional bald-faced lie or act of public graffiti, I kept thinking I surely knew them in every substantive way, if only because my kids are talkers, not brooders, willing to open their hearts and tell me what's happening in there. "I'm sick of you telling me what to do all the time!" Sam often shouts, stomping into his room. "I'm afraid of my closet at night," Henry has admitted matter-of-factly, shutting the door on his chamber of nightmares.

But sometimes, I'm learning, they don't tell me everything. Sometimes I flat-out miss the quiet convictions, the budding passions. Joe, for example, is a natural athlete who climbed out of his crib at 6 months and learned to walk earlier than either of his brothers learned to crawl. Joe loves anything that involves running fast and jumping high. One night recently I found him crying himself to sleep, literally sobbing, because he had just learned that athletic seasons overlap, that in high school he would be forced to choose between football and cross country, basketball and wrestling, baseball and track, soccer and lacrosse. "I love them all so much," he wailed. "How will I ever be able to pick?"

So when this child starting saying in kindergarten that he wanted to take piano lessons, I pooh-poohed the idea. We didn't own a piano, for one thing. But the main reason I didn't take the request seriously is that Joe is a child who had shown no real musical interest. And I knew how to recognize a zeal for music, I thought, because Henry feels about music the way Joe feels about sports: Henry's been making up songs since preschool. (We do live in Nashville, after all.) Buy a piano for Joe? It didn't make sense. Joe was our athlete.

But he persisted. Henry would get out his guitar, and Joe would say wistfully, "I wish we had a piano like Grandmother's." After school Sam would blast into the house, dropping his saxophone case to the floor with a thunk, and Joe would say, "When I'm a little bit older, then can I take piano lessons?" I knew exactly what was going on. As the youngest in the family, Joe always wants to do what his brothers are doing, but in a way that's slightly different from theirs. When Henry wanted to be a red Power Ranger for Halloween, Joe had to be a Power Ranger, too, but he chose blue. This whole "please can I take piano lessons" thing wasn't about a desire to master the piano. It was about a desire not to feel left out.

Joe's Secret Life

It was my gentle mother-in-law, the saint who raised six children of her own and taught piano lessons to many hundreds more, who convinced me that underneath Joe's soccer jersey was a little boy with a musical heart. (One way she convinced me was by donating a Baldwin console to the cause.) When I saw Joe's face the day he came home from school and saw that piano -- with its gleaming wood and shining keys -- I knew my mother-in-law had been able to see something in my youngest son that I'd been missing. The look on his face that day was pure, uncomplicated joy. A joy that had nothing to do with Henry's guitar or Sam's saxophone.

Joe has been taking piano lessons for a year now. His teacher often tells me what a good student he is. He doesn't mean that Joe's a musical genius; he means that Joe's a passionate student. I never have to nag him to practice. He plays outside till dark, but the second he comes in, all muddy from a neighborhood kickball game, he sits down on the piano bench, pushes back the cover and begins to play the theme from Star Wars. I sit down, too, and watch as my grubby little athlete is transformed into a child I never would have known if his grandmother hadn't introduced him to me.

I felt in my own body the thrill of my children's earliest minnow motions, and I still believe I know them as well as it is humanly possible to know another soul. But Joe's piano reminds me every day that my children also have a secret life all their own, an innate refusal to stick to any script I might unconsciously write for them. A day will come when the secrets they divulge aren't nearly so sweet as a love for music, nor as relatively innocent as coloring on a wooden fence, and I don't know how I'll feel when it does. All I know is that, for now, I welcome the hidden passions. I'm always hoping for another hushed glimpse into their hearts.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal , May 2007.