conversations with my son
Transitioning from school year to summertime can be a pretty challenging process. Throw in a global pandemic with ever-changing levels of quarantine, and it can be downright traumatic. So, what’s a parent to do?
Even under typical circumstances, families are dealing with a looser schedule and fewer restrictions. While kids might think that’s an amazing set of problems to have, the truth is we could all probably use some guidance.
I recently sat in on a conversation with 2019’s School Counselor of the Year, Brian Coleman, hosted by the helpful folks at Responsibility.org. Brian had a lot of great tips for parents and caregivers for navigating this exceptionally uncharted journey. Below are some of the tips he shared as we embark on a summer with so many unknowns.
When we told our 10-year-old we wanted to attend a local Black Lives Matter protest, his initial reaction was one of anxiety and fear. His questions and concerns were numerous: “Will the police be there?” “Will they use rubber bullets?” “Can you die from teargas?”
Like many other families, we’d already been having discussions about the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent, worldwide reaction to it. So I was honestly a bit surprised by my son’s response to attending the protest. He’s always been such an eager activist, whether related to racism, the environment or LGBTQ rights.
Maybe we’d had the news on too often, or allowed him too much YouTube time. Questions and concerns came to my own mind: Was it okay that our child had heard about police firing rubber bullets point blank at protestors? Or that he’d learned of kids being teargassed? Or seen a man his Grandpa’s age being pushed to the ground, bleeding from the head, as dozens of cops passed him by?
Sometimes I forget how lucky I am. For example, how many parents can say their kids are excited to go back to school? Okay, so I loved going back to school as a kid — but all my favorite activities involved air conditioning. My kid LIVES for summer, but he’s hyped for back-to-school as well.
Maybe he’s excited because he’s an only child and misses being around other kids. Or perhaps it’s that his classroom is in a newly-built wing. Or he’s just pumped to use his new Black Panther backpack.
It’s likely all those things. But it’s also a genuine love of learning. And as a parent, I can’t imagine how I could be more lucky.
A couple of weeks ago, Jon initiated this conversation.
“Daddy, this year at school I have some goals,” he began.
“Oh yeah? Like what?” I asked.
He begins to list them. “I want to be a better listener in class. I want to not talk in class unless I raise my hand or it’s my turn. I want to be a better helper. I want to stand up to bullies…”
The original plans for our long-planned, one-and-only summer vacation fell through at the last minute due to bad weather at our destination. It would have been a long-planned but oft-postponed visit with Jon’s birthparents. We’ll make the trip up later this year, wildfires permitting. While it was a disappointment for our son (and a pain in the ass for the hubby and me), perhaps the universe needed us to get away — just our family — just one weekend near the end of the swiftly-passing summer.
Not wanting to brave the masses at an amusement park or one of those water park/hotel behemoths, I remembered a friend recommending the small town of Cambridge, Maryland. It sits on the Choptank River that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. It was a two-hour drive, but felt worlds away from work, housework, and the looming schoolyear. Thanks, universe.
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To give you a taste of our weekend, a conversation between my husband and son, while looking out over the balcony of our hotel room.
Jon: Papa, what is that?
Papa: It’s an Indian wedding.
J: Why are they having it here?
P: Well they rented the area and it’s a pretty place for a wedding.
J: Cool! Can we rent it?
P: For what?
J: (thinks) … for a hug party!
This gives my heart all the smiles. 🙂 Also, who wants to come?!?
Not nearly long enough ago, our 7-year-old shared a conversation he’d had with a friend… about sex. It was retold with a mixture of curiosity, amazement, and giggling. And was alarmingly detailed.
I have to admit it took me off guard. I thought we had a little longer before all this! I’d done my duty as a progressive, gay dad to teach my son to be proud of his “different” family, not to tease or exclude anyone for how they look or who they were, and that Donald Trump is a horrible example of humanity.
But now it was time to step up and have “The Talk.” Or more accurately, “The Ongoing Conversation.” We’ve had lots of practice sharing the important stuff at the appropriate age regarding Jon’s adoption, so this should be easy, right?
It all began the Monday before Mother’s Day.
My son’s kindergarten teacher sent me an email to inform me that over the last few days, Jon’s behavior had been “like spring fever on steroids.” How clever.
While that subject could fill more than a few paragraphs, this is about the seemingly secondary purpose of the note. It continued,
“We will be doing some Mother’s Day activities this week. Jon asked if he could do them for his Grandma – of course!! Just wanted to check with you on this.”
I replied to both topics; for this one: “Yes, he’s done things for his Grandma (or Nonna, Nick’s mom) in the past, so that’s totally fine.”
And this was true. Both at preschool and in Sunday school at my parents’ church, my son was encouraged to make something for his Grandma or Nonna on Mother’s Day — which he always did, without issue.
The holiday came and went. We called Nonna in Italy and Grandma in Virginia. We also spent a good deal of time consoling/entertaining our pouty 6-year-old who was frustrated none of his friends could come over to play. They of course all had plans with their mothers.
Come Monday morning, once husband and son were packed up and off to work and school, I finally got around to weeding through the stack of activity sheets, flyers, and crafts that get brought home from school each week.
Amongst the pile, I found a homework assignment, an activity sheet, a craft, and a card — all about or directed toward “Mom.”
I was initially surprised, then confused; this soon morphed into concern and irritation.
2015 was quite a year for me, for my family, and for several communities to which I belong. A flurry of sticky-note success; a milestone in equality; venturing into kindergarten; the return to a galaxy far, far away; the tragic loss of a friend — all of these contributed to one of the most eventful 12 months in my recent history. And it’s been exciting, fun, cathartic, intimidating, and inspiring for me to chronicle it all here (and a couple of other places) in word and doodle.
So if you’re a new reader curious to know what this site is all about, or a familiar friend sharing some moments of reflection, welcome. These are my 15 favorite blog posts of 2015.
I don’t take my son with me to Target anymore. It doesn’t matter how much groundwork I lay or how often I repeat, “We are not going to buy toys. We are not going to buy toys.” While he might show signs of understanding initially, the moment we cross the store’s threshold, the begging and negotiations ensue. And it just goes downhill from there.
Perhaps I could be a stronger parent, or more patient, or more something else I’m not. But sometimes I need a break from the kiddo — and if I have the option (I don’t always), I do my shopping alone.
Sunday afternoon I had finished some blissfully solo retail therapy, and was headed to the front of the store. I passed the elevator bay and noticed a girl of 6 or 7 whining to her father about something her Mom (who wasn’t there) had said or done differently than Dad — I couldn’t hear it all that well.
But as I passed to the other side of the elevator, I clearly heard the daughter exclaim — rather loudly,
“Dad, you’re worthless!”
To explain the stress there’s been in the house the last couple of weeks… well, I could, but I need to hold it close and protect it, or at least disguise it in prose. And by it I mean him — our brave, defiant, demanding, turbulent, tender boy.
Limits have been being pushed. Or is it boundaries? Whatever they are, they’ve been pushed. Also, buttons.
Last night I sat and watched as my son played out an allegory for his life at this moment in time. Having eaten his dinner, my five-and-three-quarters-year-old requested ice cream. I got one of his “baby bowls” from the cabinet, after a second or two of consideration as I skimmed through the options in my well-oiled (though oft -addled) dad-brain:
“Though he does fine with the plates, his clumsiness rules out a ceramic bowl. The plastic ones Papa and I use for ice cream are rather deep — he’s still a bit short to reach inside… Plus a smaller bowl would do better for a smaller portion. Baby bowl it is.”
I placed the ice cream in front of him at the table, then ever-so-carefully scattered out sprinkles until he’d declared there were enough. He then jumped up, scrambled to the cutlery drawer, and came back wielding a large, red-handled spoon. He explained he needed a grown-up spoon because “my mouth is so big.” Truer words.
As I finished my salad, we talked about school and who his new friends were and the song about elephants he learned in music class that day. And he ate his ice cream. Vanilla with rainbow sprinkles, in a too-small baby bowl, with a spoon too big for his talkative mouth. He would pick off the tiniest of bites with his giant spoon, careful to get a couple of sprinkles in each nibble, placing some atop the ice cream if the spoon failed to snatch some. Perhaps his micro-bites were an attempt to avoid brain freeze or him wanting it to last longer or trying to avoid catapulting the entire scoop out of his bowl.
Whatever the reason, I continued to soak in the image of my newly-minted kindergartner with his tiny bowl and huge spoon, reflecting on recent weeks and the growing pains it had brought us. His final morning with preschool classmates and teachers closely preceding the afternoon he met his kindergarten teacher; his first day of class a mere two days later. I worried it was too quick; too abrupt a transition, but he took it in stride. No tears, only excitement tinged with nervousness.
On that transition day, after seeing his classroom and chatting with his Mrs. Kelly, we roamed the halls of the new school as a family, dodging teachers and parents, kids of various sizes and speeds, exploring the cafeteria, the library, the gym. As we maneuvered these large, crowded, foreign halls, my in-between boy would absentmindedly reach up for my hand, feel it was there, then drop his back to his side. Never looking up, never taking hold, always moving forward. My hope, that it was with the knowledge I was by his side, had his back, and was ready to take hold when he needed it. And to let go when he needed that, too.
It was a bittersweet moment, and a portend of the weeks ahead, between then and the ice cream. Weeks that have seen a straining to grow more, to catch up, to chase after the big kids, to be his own person. And the fall-out from falling short or trying to go too far, too soon. Meltdowns and tantrums. Defiance and anger. But with moments of joy and triumph, laughter and maturity in-between.
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