When Matthew was three years old, he and I attended a winter playgroup for two hours every week. One morning, when Matthew and I were sitting in circle time together, the group facilitator asked the children what sounds various animals made. What sound does a cow make? moooo. What sound does a dog make? woof. You know the kind of thing. Well, the leader next asked the kids what sound a cat makes. The whole group, with the exception of one child, said the expected meow. The one exception was my kid. Confident about the sound a cat makes, Matthew hopped to his feet and uttered loudly and with animation: "hhiiiissssssssss." I laughed so hard I thought I'd split a gut. But he was right...in his world, that's the sound a cat made. My beloved Frodo, who had been my baby for over a decade by the time Matthew came along, took a very long time to accept Matthew's presence in our lives. Years, in fact. When Matt was three, she was still very much at the hissing stage with him. Poor little guy tried so hard to be friends with her and was unusually gentle for a boy his age, but she would have nothing to do with him.
Frodo is still a little leery of him, but a couple of years ago, Matthew and I began a campaign to win her over to him. We bought deluxe little cat treats (which she'd never had before) exclusively for Matthew's use (I never even touched the package to ensure she could smell nothing of me on it); we strategized about how Matthew would never, ever yell in front of her, and agreed that if Frodo ever wanted to remove herself from a situation that Matthew would simply clear the space to allow her to leave. The kid was amazing. He started dropping treats at the doorway of rooms that he would enter, leave a trail of them for her in a way that was designed to lead her to him, began to be the one to fill her food dish daily and give her fresh water, and would crawl much more cautiously into Geoff's and my bed in the morning so that he wouldn't scare Frodo away from where she was curled up against me. Gradually, Frodo became more accepting of him and even started, I think, to like him...or maybe it was just the treats. Two years later, Matthew is now almost as good as me at translating her various sounds, and making the little chirping noises that beckons her to us. In Matthew's calmer states, Frodo is now very accepting of Matthew: she allows him to freely approach and pet her; she rolls over for belly scratches and purrs at him; she even comes into his bedroom at night on occasion, mostly to meow at him over some indignation or another, but sometimes to enable him to pet her from his perch on the bed.
Today, Matthew is a real cat lover. He's got the cat whispering down to a science. When he sees a cat (Frodo or otherwise) he loves to crouch down on his haunches or lie down on his belly, and start to coo at them in a quiet voice that you might hear a parent using with their newborn baby: "helllloo there, you pretty girl...oh, you are such a beautiful little thing...yes you are...oh, yes you are...are you my precious little baby...oh yes you are...oh yes you are...I bet you like to be scratched right there, don't you, oh don't you...yes you do, oh yes you do...." I don't know where he got that tone of voice from, or the continuous stream of calming words, but it seems to work...even, usually, on Frodo these days. Eyes sparkling, he can go on talking to them for quite a while, rubbing their tummies or scratching behind their ears.
I love seeing Matthew's gentleness with cats. I think it's great training for how to nurture and protect smaller beings, and it brings out the softer side of him. It's also been a really good discipline for him to see the cause and effect of his behaviour on another living thing. So when we were at the cottage last weekend and Matthew tenderly picked up the tiniest, thumbnail-sized tree frog that I've ever seen, he talked to it, too, eyeball to microscopic eyeball, and was as gentle as you can ever imagine a child to be while holding a fragile bit of life. It makes me think that he's going to be great with his own children some day. But wait...hmm...guess that would make me a grandma to more than Matthew's Curious George teddy! Not quite ready for that one!