When I think back on the adults who made me feel most seen and understood as a child, I find an unusual but instructive common thread:
Most of them took me to the magic shop.
This has less to do with the special properties of magic shops – though there’s something to be said for that, too – and more to do with the special properties of who I was as a kid.
In particular, in the eight years before I could drive myself around, I thought magic was tops. I was crazy for it. I read about magic in books. I discussed magic in early online forums. I recorded every magic show that came on TV, back in the days when that meant reading TV Guides and keeping a stack of blank VHS tapes handy. I carried a deck of cards with me everywhere I went, to be unholstered at a moment’s notice.
My obsession was no secret. But there were those who considered it an embarrassing, childish thing to be gotten over as quickly as possible. The people who saw my fascination, took it seriously, and made a point of helping me pursue my interest were lifelines keeping me connected to something I cared about. I’ve never forgotten.
Their efforts didn’t have to be transportational, or even transactional, in nature. Some of what I now think of as “taking me to the magic shop” is more metaphorical.
Happily, there were people who actually, physically took me to real, live, on-the-brink-of-bankruptcy magic shops and let me salivate over the miracles on offer for as long as I wanted before settling on one or two things to take home. (Thanks, Mom and Cheryl.)
But there were also adults who told other adults, with something like pride, about tricks they’d seen me do.
There were those who became town criers, shouting it from the rooftops and gathering crowds on my behalf.
There were friends and family who went to the trouble of recording magic specials on TV and sending me the tapes.
There were patient souls who always made a point of asking what I’d been working on lately and giving me their whole, undivided attention when I showed them.
My affection extends even to those generous bystanders who simply refused to point out, in mixed company, that this alleged boy wizard had just flashed some move they weren’t supposed to see.
In their own way, they all “took me to the magic shop.”
I was interested in other things, too. I always loved books. I liked going to movies. I enjoyed wandering the aisles of office supply stores. Could an adult have endeared herself to me just as much by taking me to the bookstore, taking me to the movies, or dropping me off at Staples?
Sadly, no. None of those (nevertheless thoughtful) actions would have carried quite the same weight because I knew there were things for a typical adult at a bookstore, movie theater, or office supply store. In my mind, those were all within the realm of places a grown person might regularly visit anyway.
By contrast, going to a magic store or videotaping a magic show on TV or willingly and patiently subjecting oneself to endless pick-a-card tricks was unusual behavior. From what I could tell, adults didn’t usually do those things. So when they did, it seemed to mean something important. When it happened, I knew I was the reason. Anything magic-related was the intimate, unequivocal “I know and appreciate you” gesture.
For most kids, it’s not magic. For most kids for whom it is magic, it doesn’t stay that way for long. There might be a whole succession of different interests, each taken in turn. My point is that there’s great value in being present enough to see what matters a lot to kids and finding ways to honor and encourage their interests. Even if it means extending yourself in unusual ways. Indeed, as my own recollections suggest, it might be a more meaningful, memorable gesture if it requires obvious divergence from standard operating procedure: If it seems to have taken a little extra care and trouble.
It could be a serious interest or a silly one. It could be a passing fad or the beginning of a life’s work. But that feeling – of being seen in all one’s particularity and encouraged to pursue whatever felt important at the time – will live on in the kid, and then in the adult, regardless.
Oh, and when you’re old enough that nobody is taking you to the magic shop anymore?
You’re supposed to take yourself there. Because it still matters.