When my five-year old professes with an acute glint in his eye that he "has a better idea" I know that he has prefaced a plan by which whatever I have attempted to achieve has been resolutely challenged. "The kids get to choose [insert particular activity of choice] and the parents just DEAL WITH IT!" he shouts. His brother, depending on whom he needs to curry favour with at that precise moment either allies with his brother or diplomatically argues my position. This is a perfect encapsulation of their characters. L negotiates, expertly utilizing guilt to achieve his ends, whilst M charges in, guns blazing, shouting “you don’t control me, mum! I do what I want!” Sometimes he intersperses “penis head” as an address, which is not my favourite to say the least. Nor am I a big fan of his new address, "machine gun", which he uses as a term of endearment that nevertheless retains his inherent rebellion. L confirms I rattle orders, “please do this and that, then you’re done - simple”. I have been told that I am strict, but isn’t that my job as a parent? I continually tell my kids "I can't just be your friend, I have to be your mother" (I am unfortunately prone to repeating such stock phrases,"bacteria and viruses love humidity" , "I love you, but I do not love your choices now"- I can see my boys later in life having a beer and rolling their eyes as they repeat them). Do we expect kids to discipline themselves or outsource it to their exasperated, over-worked and under-appreciated teachers? Of course, being too strict results in mutiny and rebellion, which some may argue is what has caused M’s mutiny, but it could just be a visceral part of his character. After all, the eponyms of his name and his birthdate both resound in rebellion. M is of course very fond of rules when they apply to others. He has numerous times walked up to people on the street and accused them of ruining their own health and as well as that of others around them if he spots them smoking (or appearing not to pick up after their dog). "Stop smoking!" he insists and most admit he is right and nervously walk away.
Discipline a fine line. There is concrete evidence that I have not achieved resounding success with my tactics, but I hope that they will be fruitful long-term. After all, I want to instill a certain suspicion of authority, which in a democratic society, has to be earned and continually questioned. Yet, conversely, I do not intend to rear criminals (then again civil disobedience has proven necessary throughout history to move it along to more just ways, such as the civil rights movement). The issue is inherently complex and requires a distinction between abstract ideals and practical decision-making that may not be well digested in young children.
M is fast learning that the best tactics are disarming and not escalation through utilizing humour – at least, where it works and at home, it does. A case in point – we were again butting heads over some trifle that I merely insisted on to retain some sense of discipline – when M stopped and with a wry smile that beguiled, he commented on my millenary. Pointing to my beanie, he complimented me on it. “Nice beanie, mum." This took me by surprise and I thanked him. “You look like a penis head. A walking, talking, penis head” he laughed. I should have had discipline, but I did not. I erupted in laughter and lost all leverage. This occurs frequently. I should have more discipline, particularly because his teachers, for instance, will likely not see humour in it, nor can they. On the other side of the coin, I would much rather he attacks with humour than anything else.
L's harnessing of diplomacy is impressive. He long ago realized the power of coalition building and advocating for its causes rather than his ends individually. He also has realized the power of compliments and guilt and when to utilize each. For instance, he has remarked to me, seemingly untethered to his later request, of which temporal spacing was another calculated move, “mum, I know you are 39, but you look like you are 25” (so can I have that Lego set?). His harnessing of guilt, a family tradition, is being steadily developed. One day, when I was in the passenger seat and pensive, L, who was a direct line of sight to me from his diagonally placed back-seat, asked me what I thinking. I didn’t want to divulge what I was saying nor did I want to lie, so I explained it was private. “But you look sad, mum- and I’m concerned.” I then lied, breaking my earlier resolve and told him it was about work and confidential to which he immediately retorted, “that sounds like an excuse” with an accompanying look that imparted his conclusion that I was deceiving him. I reminded him it was private, without mentioning work. “OK, fine, have it your way” he said, turning away and looking out the window. Then, he twisted in the knife. “Just know that I’m going to spend all night without sleep, thinking about what made my mother sad… but that’s fine”. I crumbled and told him that I was thinking what a beautiful gift we had received, how thankful I was for it and more importantly, how grateful I was that we had such wonderful people in our lives - but that I couldn’t help noticing a grammatical error and that there was no way I could point this out and that I felt sad both for noticing the error and not being able to fix it (such are my thoughts).
L is not always so calculating. He's very empathetic (which allows him to harness his political skills) and an incorrigible romantic. There is one girl in school he is particularly infatuated with and has declared that he “shoots hearts into her eyes”. I suppose all true romance is inherently painful. She seems to welcome the attention from him in turn. I'm told they are betrothed.
One day, L was racing down the street after I picked him up from school, down our neighbourhood promenade, “gliding” (fanning his hoodie out), calling out his colour powers, “blue power!”, “red power!” he yelled. I froze when he ran past a crowded café and yelled “white power!” I wonder what conversations that unwitting comment inspired. I told L not to say “white power” as he glided home. “Why not? I’m playing my colour power game” he innocently asked. “White isn’t a colour” I retorted. This did the trick and he continued forth heralding his colour powers home. “Rainbow power!” he yelled past a bemused group of adults. You have to pick the right time for serious discussions- that wasn't it.
One day during the holiday season, L came shopping with me. He asked for a lolly at the counter. I told him he couldn’t have it. Later, walking home, I discovered the lolly. “What is this?” L looked down, silent, his cheeks incarnadine. “Is that the lolly that I told you, you couldn’t get?” L continued to stare down as if he wanted to bore a hole through the ground. “How did you get it? Speak to me”. L looked up and timidly said, “I thought they were free”. I told him we were going straight back to buy it and that we would give it to his brother. We couldn’t return it tattered and I couldn’t reward him. He looked aghast. “Please don’t. I’ve… learnt my lesson” he stammered. I held his hand as we walked there and his stance slowed and then stalled. “Please, mum, can I just wait outside?” I shook my head. “No, you took what was not yours and now you are going to make amends”. While I wanted L to own up to what he had done, I didn’t want him to further embarrass himself in front of his peers, so I did a quick reconnaissance to ensure that no one from school was inside. Then I took him to the manager. He immediately knew what was going on and became flushed and more embarrassed than L. Before L had a chance to explain, he started to say “it was OK” and before he could say L could keep the lolly, I cut him off and directed L to explain what happened. I had given L some of his pocket money at home to buy the lolly for his brother and watched as L timidly apologized, while still maintaining he thought they were free (which could have been a possibility, I suppose) and the manager graciously accepting his money while all the while appearing more embarrassed and uneasy than L did. When we walked home, I hugged L tightly as we went and explained that this was OK, he made a mistake, we all did, but we have to own up to our mistakes and make amends. We also have to learn from them and not repeat them, to which he shyly nodded and hugged me back. Perhaps it was harsh, at least the manager thought so, but I nevertheless believe it was the right thing to do and the incident has not been repeated.
It's easy to tell your children what they should do and difficult to model it and the latter is perhaps the most important thing we can impart. We teach our children what we hope to be and often, we don’t measure up to our own ideals. I am still ashamed that when I saw L attempting to comfort one of his friends in a deluge of tears, who was avidly rebuffing his attempts at consolation, I immediately assessed the situation as L attempting to make amends for something he did (knowing that L is accident prone and causes numerous unwitting injuries to those around him). I was wrong. L was simply being kind, comforting a friend. I apologized to him. I was wrong. He did a beautiful thing and I immediately accused him of doing harm. I told him that was the problem of assumptions. We jump to conclusions and generally, when we jump, we can fall and sometimes, flat on our face – just as I did, failing my own son. I make many mistakes, but I always try to own up to them in front of the kids. I cannot model being perfect, or even being great. I am a mess of imperfection, but I can model recognition of my mistakes, my attempts to amend them and my attempts to not repeat them.
The state of surveillance in our society is so pervasive, that children are readily recognizing our panopticon. M can walk into a place and immediately register all the security cameras as if he is scoping it out for an impending heist. His leprechaun trap has numerous security cameras, which are plastic wobbly eyes that he pasted onto cardboard, "we have to watch the trap, don't we?" he maintained. L and his mate at after-school care were building reconnaissance planes that would spy on all the kids and relate to them who was breaking the rules, which they would then impart to the teachers. M, on hearing this explanation, scoffed. His motto is not to get others in trouble. That certainly has its merits, but then again, M likes to take his battles into his own hands, and at times, quite literally. If he breaks the rules in class and is asked what occurred, he retorts, "I don't remember", straight from the playbook. Before he settled for months past on being an engineer and a musician (why not?), M went through a period when he would proudly tell all and sundry that he wanted to be a “trickster” when he grew up. Whether he meant a comedian or the architect of an MLM scheme was never entirely clarified.
M can be wily. When I noticed he was scoffing at people and calling them "idiots", we had a BIG TALK. He seemed to understand. Next, I heard him calling people "iddies". We again had a BIG TALK. He seemed to understand. Presently, I heard him call people "iddy biddy spiders" (evidently utilized in a pejorative manner). We again had a BIG TALK. He seemed to understand. I realized we weren't getting anywhere. I had to try another way. "What's 12 multiplied by 13?" I asked. M looked flummoxed. "I don't know" he finally responded. "156" I said. "Now, if I called you an iddy biddy spider, how would you feel?" He was crestfallen and didn't need to audibly respond. "That's how other people feel when you remark on their supposed ineptitude. And you're only 5, you haven't been taught multiples of 12 yet. Not knowing something does not mean you are not smart." I also told him I didn't even know all the multiples of 12, I just added 12 to its square. "We are always learning new things in life" I informed M, "and if you've had the opportunity to learn something before someone else, impart it. Knowledge is to be shared." M loves to help, so framing instruction in terms of him aiding someone has thus far worked a charm.
If L is upset, he withdraws and is sad. If M is upset, he is enraged. I noted that M likes to perceive himself as strong and that perhaps his initial response is a defense mechanism. I imparted some advice to him (couching it in generality) that when people get angry, we try to hide our sadness to shield ourselves from vulnerability and in an effort to project strength. I told him that exposing our vulnerabilities takes courage and strength and he seemed to respond to that by going up to his brother and explaining how he felt L was not listening to him during their game.
M has a real knack for how things work and is intensely interested in the mechanics of any mechanism. He has already developed an understanding of how things work that is sometimes more advanced than mine (which I suppose says as much about his talent as my lack of it). The other day, we were sitting at lunch and heard a noise. "What's that?" M asked, directing his attention to the fridge. Before anyone in the family could respond, M proudly proclaimed, "it's the fridge making ice".
M is continually crafting songs. While has some trouble focusing, any thing that relates to art, music or engineering engrosses him. The boys love to jam, with M mostly directing the composition of their songs. "I know how to build, yeah yeah, I know where to place the piece" M sang after a long Lego session. He can compose songs and play on the keyboard for hours. If he likes a particular song, he loves to play air guitar to it.
L has an obsessive tick to his personality. He fell in love with marine biology and orcas in particular, when he was three, and it has stuck. Last year, he found out about the Titanic and its demise into the depths of the sea and that is all we heard about for months. L can inform you of the eleven things that went wrong that ensured its demise. He has spent numerous hours concocting alternate scenarios in which the Titanic safely reaches New York ( in one fantasy, a pod of orcas come to the rescue). He is extremely fond of James Cameron and has watched Cameron's documentary on the shipwreck an indecent amount of times. For Halloween, he was the Titanic and I was cajoled into being the fateful iceberg. M was a skeleton for the second year in a row. "It's educational" he proclaimed. "I'm teaching everyone about anatomy" he retorted, as if he were a 3D infographic.
When we all fell ill in December (with what seems like more than half the world in company), M and L became acutely interested in anatomy and in the immune system in particular. L read numerous books on anatomy (L loves to take books to his bed and spend hours voraciously digesting book after book). M started calling leukocytes "jail cells". During a particular febrile episode, his diaphanous eyes droopy, M stammered through coughs, "why do white blood cells eat 3 viruses a day?" I shrugged. "Breakfast, lunch and dinner" M smiled and then soon fell asleep.
The boys learnt how to ski this winter. M took to it like a pro. He sped down as fast as possible so he could show his command of the hockey stop. L kept falling at first, but was a true champ at getting back up again. By the end, they were both hooked on skiiing and were imagining SF covered in snow and discussing where the best places were to ski. Perhaps we will see snow in SF in some years. Historically, it's snowed every 50 years and we're due for another but we missed this season (although the Bay Area got snow).
You never know with life. You could get fire, snow or just a breeze. I meant that figuratively but typing it out, we live in a mercurial climate in which the frequency and intensity of stochastic events are the new norm. The sky is not always blue and the sun doesn't always rise ( or rather, you cannot see it do so). Perhaps there's a bug in the code. M declared his acceptance of the simulation theory. "Mama, maybe we're all in a computer game and black holes are when your game is shut down". Maybe.