So John and I sit down outside Starbucks, him with his iced dark chocolate mocha, me with my extra sweet caramel latte (I’m gonna need all the sugar I can get for this convo), and we get down to the business of arguing like grown-ups.
“Samuel’s been getting bullied lately.”
John nods. He knows this. We’ve talked about it plenty.
“But the only reason I know about it is because of how much time I’ve been spending with him lately. When he gets home from school, instead of just sending him to his room to do homework and play videogames so I can keep working [sidenote: I work from home] like I used to, I’ve been intentionally stopping and taking half an hour or forty-five minutes to just hang out with him.”
“I know. That’s awesome.”
I shake my head because he’s still not getting the point. “It’s all about this different approach I’ve been taking with him lately—trying to build a relationship with him now instead of focusing so much on do this or do that.”
John eats the whip cream off the top of his iced mocha. “I don’t disagree with you on any of that. Obviously we want a good relationship with Sam. But that doesn’t mean we can allow him to just get away with not doing his chores. Or listening when I tell him to do something.”
My earlier frustration from during the fight threatens to rise again. I take a breath. This is not supposed to be a Melissa-Sharing-Her-Infinite-Wisdom session to make John feel small or dumb. That doesn’t mean that inside me there’s not still a voice shouting: but I’m right and he’s wrong and he needs to listen to me!
Because those sorts of voices are always so helpful when coming at something from opposite points of view.
All right, let’s try this from a different angle.
“During the week, you get to spend how much time on an average day with him? If you get home on time, say at six-thirty?”
John looks at me warily like he senses a trap.
Apparently I’m doing an awesome job of making him feel like this is a safe space to talk. I answer for him to try to show I’m not trying to jump on him. “You get maybe an hour and a half or two hours with him, right? And then when you come in, a lot of times the first thing you see is his backpack, which he’s always drops right in the doorway when he comes in. So you get upset and…” How to put this diplomatically… “then your first interaction for the evening starts off very negatively.” Aka, shouting match.
John rolls his eyes. “It wouldn’t happen if he could just take his backpack his room like he’s supposed to. How many times have I told him to take his backpack to his room when he gets home from school? It’s the simplest thing to do.”
“Yeah, but is fighting over his backpack worth the expense of building a relationship with your son for the single hour and a half you see him every day?!” I take a breath, seeing that both of our tempers are rising again.
“He’s already twelve and a half,” I try again. “We only have so much time left to impact him before he’s grown.” I put a pleading hand down on the tabletop.
“Exactly,” John says, looking me in the eye like I’m the unreasonable one. “And I’m trying to raise a responsible man who knows how to take care of himself.”
“But don’t you see? We won’t get to have any impact on how he turns out if we don’t work on our relationship with him now. This is the critical time. He still wants to spend time with us. If we really want to affect the man he becomes, we have to work on getting to know him and building the best bond with him now. Before he outgrows us and wants nothing to do with us. Maybe if we do it right that time won’t come.”
John blinks at me. I can tell he’s hearing me, but he still feels his points are still valid.
I press further. “What are our goals with this whole thing? What is your goal by telling him to put the cup in the cupboard and to put his backpack in his room every day? So that he keeps a tidy house when he grows up?”
I’m not being facetious. I’m literally trying to trace out the long-term goal of what we’re trying to achieve by enforcing this rule-following and obedience war we’ve been fighting for so long. When he was small, sure it was necessary for safety and frankly, for sanity, but he’s almost a teenager now and for the most part, he can be approached on a rational level (unless it’s devolved to the screaming, at which point, all rationality is tossed out the window and he just becomes entrenched in his side, him vs. us style).
John nods. “Yes, that’s what I want. Him to be an orderly and clean adult.”
I scoff. “I was messy as hell as a kid. I never had any chores. But now I can’t stand a dirty house. I don’t think that has anything to do with what you do when you’re a grown up.”
John looks at me like I’m crazy. “Well I did. I had a ton of responsibilities when I was a kid. I fixed things and took care of the house. We reused everything and didn’t throw things out. I never took things for granted like Sam does.”
Ohhhhhhh. Right. A lightbulb goes on.
It’s easy to forget since we’ve been married so long (16 years) and I’ve only known him in an American context since we met in college, but John grew up in a Communist country as a child. He’s always telling me stories of the crazy austerity measures he grew up with. Standing in lines for hour the rare times the stores had bananas or meat. How he repeatedly fixed and then built and rebuilt his computer—back when computer memory was stored on cassette tapes, before even floppy disks.
This is a man who grew up visiting his grandpa’s house in the country where the floors were packed dirt and there was an outhouse out back. Suffice it to say, having a son who takes soooooooo much for granted has been a trial for his practical, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps nature. Seriously, if I told you this guy’s story and how he got to where he is in life, it’s insane.
I feel a lot less high and mighty now. Of course John feels the way he does. Our son must seem like a strange foreign creature who has always refused to act the way that John expected from day one.
But that doesn’t mean I still don’t have something to say here.
My tone is gentler, though, when I continue. I reach across the table and take John’s hand. “I want Samuel to be able to take care of a clean household when he grows up—but more than anything, I want him to be a good man. And you’re the best man I know.” This is no bull either. John is kind and sensitive and caring. He took care of me and our son for a decade when I was terribly and chronically ill. Like, I don’t mean to be braggy, but I kind of married the best man ever. On the planet. If our son turns out to be half the man his father is, he’s going to be an awesome person.
“I want to take down any of these blockades to your relationship with him. We have to think about the main goal. The most important goal.”
John’s hand clenches around mine. He’s finally starting to hear what I’m saying. We talk for another twenty minutes discussing the practical realities of a relationship-centric rather than obedience-centric approach to parenting.
“And when I have this relationship, it’s so much easier to ask him to do things and he does them without the grand dramatics, I swear,” I say. “I’ll ask him to take out the trash or unload the dishes after we have one of our talks, he does them without much fuss. Or we negotiate a time for him to do them like the next morning before school when he doesn’t have anything more interesting to do. Just talking to him makes all the different. But I promise I’m not just abandoning chores or obedience per se. It’s just a whole new way of looking at it. Relationship is the goal.”
He nods. Our drinks are both near the dregs. Our hands have been linked and he’s moved his chair closer to mine.
Then he stares at me before one side of his mouth quirks up. “And maybe you can work with him about the backpack thing?”
I punch him on the arm, but I’m smiling. “Can do.”