Today when I picked the kids up from the roller skating rink I recognized the kind of safe yet vaguely Lord of the Flies environment most kids enjoy, but is perhaps best not a steady diet. Sophie was eating some huge amount of bright blue sugary candy while staring glassily at the game of tag on the floor, and Nels – who’d long removed his skates, apparently – was under the pinball machines systematically trying to suss out how they worked. I told my daughter to take her skates off and get ready, then I approached Nels with that sort of wary expectation – because each and every time I have to ask him to leave somewhere he’s enjoying it takes the effort and cunning needed to break a young mustang. As I talked to him he scurried around under the video game tables, intent on his own little mission, and I heard a loud and almost scary electric Pop! The thing is, I know my son pretty well, and in that millisecond at some level I knew he knew what he was doing and I didn’t even have that jolt of fear I so often do when my kids do something startling. He did know what he was doing, as it turned out: he had found how to power down the machines and was exploring to see if this resulted in a regurgitation of quarters (which it didn’t, of course).
My son makes me crazy because so often he simultaneously exposes my limitations and aggravates me in equal measure. In a case like this every fiber of my training wants to tell him Don’t. Just don’t! Don’t turn off the pinball machines. What is wrong with you? It’s as if this reflex of mine proceeds my frontal lobe processes, because I want to tell him (and sometimes do) Don’t even before I’ve thought: is this actually dangerous, or wrong, or douchey in the slightest? Is this something that makes sense for him to do? Why is he doing it, anyway? Can he un-do it after he does it? No, I want to say Don’t because life would be easier for me in the short term if my son just, you know, didn’t do stuff.
I dislike this about myself, that although I have two perfectly normal, intelligent, strong, curious, and fabulous children I still often parent from the basic impulses of fear and the desire to avoid suffering (even if the “suffering” at most would have been an employee of the roller rink asking me to tell my son to stop fooling with the equipment). I’ve been a mama for almost eight years now but this impulse within me is still strong. And I could go on and on about why I think this is so (mostly, I guess, being overly-socialized as a child, rather than trusted) but I certainly cannot account for how I still haven’t escaped this limitation. In a way my son has been a wonderful lesson for me – one I am grateful for. I think I wouldn’t be as brave as I am now without his influence; I mean to tell him this at my next opportunity.
Stepping back from Good Mom vs. Bad Mom and all that, I think of the amazing things I’ve learned from him: he is almost categorically always being “safe” – that is, operating within his own well-known limits in such a way where he will likely not be harmed nor harm anyone else (this is another one I hear spoken to him often: “Ooooh, be careful, I don’t want you to hurt yourself!” – spoken by a friend in my own kitchen just a few minutes ago near the stove, an appliance he well knows his way around) and – perhaps most relevantly – he will not obey Don’t. He will not obey Don’t when it is backed by threats, cajoling, grabbing, yelling, pleading, or lecturing. He simply has to discover for himself why things do what they do.
He’s a brave soul, really. I’m not sure I know anyone who knows his own limits and confidently stretches them as well as my son does. It reminds me of how he taught himself to swim – carefully wading deeper and deeper into the water before he could keep himself afloat, testing on his tip-toes with his head stretched up and the water kissing at his lips. This alarmed some lifeguards (those that hadn’t been watching him previously), but was permitted by others (those who’d had experience with him). It was kind of crazy for me because I think of Learning To Do Something as the sort of thing an Expert teaches you, and there are kind of right and wrong ways to go about it. Yet here was my child going about it in a very different way that was entirely effective (the little guy can swim now, after all) and completely his own. Never once did I worry about his drowning, but I couldn’t relax and let him to it, either (Don’t!). Really, so much about observing him is really mind-blowing.
As it turned out my Sunday was rather eaten up by cooking, cleaning, errands, and various housewifery – I barely got time sewing up on one of my daughter’s birthday presents, a project I’d been looking forward to since before our company came Thursday. Well, sometimes my weekends go that way. Ralph recorded music in the afternoon and while he did this I busied myself making, for the first time, onigiri. Cooking something new almost always cheers me up – even if, like today, the process ends up being messy and/or painful (scalded palms! Damn sticky rice is treacherous!) – but ultimately, successful. For dinner I served the onigiri along with a donburi (chicken, carrots and broccoli), garlic green beans, miso soup, seared mushrooms, and green tea; our friends Jasmine and Flo joined us and Flo brought a lovely, rich pineapple upside down cake. We drank beer and talked about David Bowie’s package in the movie Labrynth. And other stuff that was also fun but slightly less memorable.