Recently my son has begun to break out of his shell. Fortunately, he hasn't made the leap to face belting or calling anyone a bitch (at least, not to my knowledge!), but he is definitely developing -or perhaps returning to- a social side of his personality, and in conjunction an independence, defiance, and sheer bossiness I haven't seen before. Sometimes it's amusing; occasionally it's appalling. And at times I find myself impressed with this sudden display of chutzpah.
We were playing in the backyard the other day and I stepped into the kitchen for a moment. While I was inside, the neighbors let their large dog out, and he ran up to the fence just a few feet from my boy, jumping and barking furiously. As I stepped from the kitchen into the hallway leading out to the deck, I heard my son reprimanding the huge dog in an even bigger -and bossier- voice: Doggy! No barking! I said no barking! I tell my Mommy! He turned to the door and addressed me in the same domineering tone: Mommy, get out here! I tell that doggy no barking! He turned back to see the dog bounding away from the fence and calmly finished his lecture: I tell that doggy be quiet and he runned away. Very self-satisfied, but it was clear he expected no less. His Royal Highness, the Tyrant of Two, had spoken. Even large dogs are expected to stop their barks when the Tyrant of Two gives his orders.
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I took my son with me to work last week. The morning was surprisingly productive and we had a pleasant time playing together in the toddler classroom. Things were going so well I decided to make an appointment at the Teacher's Center to laminate a pile of curricular materials that had been piling up since the start of fall. We arrived and the laminator hadn't finished heating up. The room we waited in was surrounded by offices, most of them with open doors and empty desks, oh-so tempting for a toddler! He would approach an open doorway and look to me, eyebrows slightly raised and the start of a mischievous smile on his lips, waiting for the warning he knew I would repeat each time: Stay in this room, sweetie. You can look, but don't go through the door.
Then he would place a hand on either side of the door frame and leeeaaan into the office, belly protruding through the doorway, back arched, up on his toes, coming as close as he could to entering the office without actually doing so. If I said his name in a warning tone, he would respond evenly, without altering his precarious position in the slightest: Mommy, I just yooking! I not going. Content only on the razor's edge of being right, parsing the language in his retort until the truth becomes exactly what he wants it to be. Part of my brain was saying: For God's sakes, kid, just stay out of these stranger's offices so we can laminate this crap and go home! And another part couldn't help but take a step back and say: True, child, true. And if you can use language so that what you want becomes the truth, well, the world is your oyster. Well done, ya little punk!
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I've had the displeasure of reviewing a motley collection of parenting literature recently featuring the following commonality: deep admiration for authoritarian discipline. It would never work for me. Philosophically, I'm opposed to it, and personally, I admire the spirit of defiance, the magic of chaos, the messy potential and slightly scary surrender to freedom that children display in their play far too much to even desire authoritarian control over it, or them.
A recent question raised by one of these so-called parenting experts at a conference I attended was this: How many of you want -more than anything- for your child to obey you immediately and without argument? My hand remained in my lap. Really? More than anything? I sit without judgement in the presence of parents who have no idea how to discipline without the use of a sharp smack, but in the presence of an "expert" who holds blind obedience as the highest of parenting ideals, I can't help but sniff like a snob with my eyebrows raised in disdain and think: What a terrible poverty of imagination. Give me literal poverty over this any day.
There are any number of things I can think of wanting more than the quick, unthinking obedience of my offspring. I'd take a half hour of simple gastronomic pleasure, a smoky glass of Malbec and a small plate of shrimp with cocktail sauce over a lifetime of lobotomized children, trained simply to make my life easier, or neater, or whatever it is that obedience -that most overrated of virtues in my book- is supposed to offer. If I strive to keep my possessions simple, my house neat (which, admittedly, I do halfheartedly in any case), it's only so there's room for minds, hearts, imaginations, to expand into the space, making all the mess they want.
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Two years ago, I'm driving. I have a newborn baby in the carseat and NPR on the dial. I hear a radio show, and it says the best way to prevent your child from becoming an eventual smoker is to ensure that they never, ever take that very first puff. I look in my rearview mirror and see my brand new baby reflected in the safety mirror I later learn is not so safe at all, being that it can break the baby's nose on impact, in the case of a collision. His cheeks are so fat they protrude on both sides as he shoves his hands in his mouth, gumming his fingers like they're teething toys, drool glistening like sunlight hitting a drop of morning dew. My love for him sparkles like glistening drool. I turn down the volume on the radio and speak to my infant son:
Oh sweetie, I say, you will probably try a cigarette someday. You'll hold it clumsy between your too-young fingers and if you figure out how to inhale, you'll nearly cough your lungs out as you exhale. And if you never, ever want even a drag of a cigarette, I hope -and I'll help- you have the confidence of your own convictions. When you know what you want, it's not nearly as difficult as the world will tell you to stick to your own guns. Pressure from peers, and media, and our culture exists, sure, but you know what, kiddo? You can be stronger than that. You are stronger than that!
You know what else? You might want a drag of a cigarette someday. You might find yourself in an alley at dusk, under the glowing light of a streetlamp. Maybe there's a drizzling rain, and a girl with a Marlboro between her fingers. She cups her hand over the flame from the lighter and when her eyes rise to meet yours, smoke trails up around her face, and you find your fingers reaching out toward her mouth and you pluck the cigarette from her lips and with your eyes locked to hers, turn it around, place it between your own, and inhale.
Now if that's your first time, you'll go on to choke, sputter and spit like water just went down your windpipe. The girl might laugh. Can you blame her? But sweetie? You will survive this. One drag of a cigarette? Will not ruin you. You, my dear baby boy, you are powerful beyond measure. No single cigarette, let alone a dismal drag, can take you down. As your mother, I'm telling you: If you want one, go ahead and have one. Life is dangerous. None of us survives it. And sweet baby, we all have more power in the tips of our pinky fingers than a cigarette has in it's smoky spark, even under the glow of a streetlamp, even in the dusky haze of a drizzling rain.
* * * * *
The house where my son goes each weekday for babysitting has a very long driveway. When we come outside in the afternoon to get into the car, he has recently taken to running away. It's not a safety issue; it's a private drive the length of a football field at the end of a dead end street with little traffic. But this is the point in the day when my energy level begins to wane. My workday is done and I'm rushing home to have lunch. My arms are loaded down with bags and the bottom of my belly is sore with the weight of my daughter's head. My lower back and hips -while no longer in pain, thanks to the weekly administrations of my chiropractor- remain loose enough to ensure that I waddle more often and easily than I walk.
I do not want my son to scurry down the driveway each day, laughing like a loon, head half-turned to gauge my response, tongue hanging out like a dog in the back of a moving pick-up. My life would be easier, neater, in those moments each afternoon if I chose to prioritize obedience. If I shut down the daily scurry before it began, prevented the loon-like laughter, the half-turned head, the tongue freed from its mouth to permit the cackle that escapes across the blacktop as he flees, yelling: I wun away! I wun away fwom Mommy! Mommy gonna gitchoo! I smile as I sigh, toss the bags into the car, and gather my strength. I take my growing desire for lunch, the pressure of my daughter's weight on my internal organs, any lingering frustrations left over from my work day, and channel them into a growl, growing from deep in my chest and escaping across the space between myself and my racing boy: MOMMY GONNA GITCHOO!!!
And I waddle his way, picking up speed as my growl grows into a roar. We run together, eschewing obedience, ignoring easy, neat and sensible, fleeing toward freedom, laughing like loons every leap of the way.