Our son is very young, not much over two, and we want to take him to the zoo. We are poor and have no cash between us, not much in our checking accounts, and we only use credit cards in desperation. I know our toddler has some money that my parents gave him, and I find fourteen dollars in his room. He is off somewhere perfecting his Superman costume or building a grocery store and I take the money without asking. I convince my husband that our son is too young to notice it is gone. Does he even understand what money is? After all, we plan to replace it.
A year or so later, my parents take their grandson for a car ride. On their return, my mother tries to give him five dollars. “No!” he protests. “Don’t give my any more money. I lost the last money you gave me so you shouldn’t give me anymore!” My mother tells me how upset and guilty he sounded. I confess my crime and apologize to him. He seems to forgive me. Before this incident my mother had been very complimentary of me as a parent; now she looks at me suspiciously. She retells this story too many times.
I Do Not Provide Necessary Information:
This same son, now four-and-a half, is playing outside on the sidewalk. Two close friends of ours are visiting from Louisiana. They are keeping him company while I am inside with our new baby. One of our friends comes to get me because the four-year-old has fallen and is inconsolable. The fall doesn’t seem at all serious, so this is puzzling.
When I reach him, he is frightened, sweaty, sobbing in gulps. “Will…I…bleed… to… death?” He has skinned his knees and some blood is escaping. Where did he learn about the connection between blood and life? I feel responsible for the fact that my child has spent long moments thinking he could die right there on our sidewalk. I must have missed where the childcare manuals warned: Explain unlikeliness of bleeding to death. Do this before age four.
I Fail to Connect the Dots:
A few months later, this same poor child is watching me garden and asks, “What exactly does poison ivy do to you?” I’m not entirely surprised by the question; we spend summer weekends at a cottage community where poison ivy sightings and warnings are common. I describe the annoying but usually harmless course of the rash. His little body relaxes in a long relieved sigh, “Oh, that’s good. That’s really good. Because I really want to see my brother grow up.” I am stricken. My sweet boy has been waiting every summer weekend to contract a deadly condition that will prevent him from seeing his baby brother grow up. He has had a lesson in preschool on “poison” dangers. He has even brought home labels for us to mark toxins with, yet I have been unable to make the connection that he has so painfully made. In future years he proves to be barely allergic to poison ivy at all.
I Rule by Intimidation and Threat:
My sons are good boys and I usually have adequate control of them in public (the car and home are harder venues) but on this grocery-shopping event the older is not behaving well. My usual warnings don’t work. Eventually, I lean down and say in my most menacing whisper, “If you don’t start behaving, I will march you to the manager’s office; he will find a chair for you to sit on while I finish my shopping and everyone will wonder why that little boy is sitting there.” It works, but I am certain that good mothers do not say these things.
A few years later, my boys are perhaps fourteen and ten, and the older too often takes advantage of his size. On this occasion they are fighting just a few feet from me, instead of in their basement lair away from my authority. The older is truly angry. It’s not apparent to me what his brother did to evoke such rage. Possibly nothing or possibly something cleverly hidden from my view. My older son declares to me with venom in his voice that he is about to punch this ten-year-old in the chest with all his strength. I reach him first and say in a cold-blooded, businesslike, completely determined way, “If you hit him I will call the police and don’t think I won’t. I know some cops and I know Juvenile Court pretty well and I know just who to call.” I am not sure if I am bluffing — it would be very embarrassing to follow through on this threat, but I am resolute; this assault will not take place. He stands down. I don’t make my usual half-joke about looking forward to the near future when his brother will outweigh him – and by a substantial amount. This comes to pass a little ahead of schedule; though by ages 13 and 17 they are the same height, the younger outstrips his older brother by forty-five pounds of muscle. Luckily he does not seem to want revenge.
For many years I don’t spy. I do not search through drawers or under beds– though I learn later that this might not have been a bad idea. The youngest one, who to my mind does not worry enough about poison ivy (he is the one who is dangerously allergic), or accidents or death, is attending the large, party-famous university where we had sworn no child of ours would ever go. After two months he finally admits to some minor legal trouble, the usual college sort. I am not at all surprised — he is inattentive and bad at covering his tracks. For the last six months I have been saying each time he goes out, “Please don’t get arrested.”
When he is home from school one weekend, I notice that he has neglected to log out of FaceBook on our home computer. I learn, without surprise, that there has been another legal matter, not quite as minor. I force a confession out of him without admitting my source–I want him to think I am as omniscient as he did when he was four. He is equal parts embarrassed and relieved and allows me to find out what he will need to do to keep this off of his Permanent Record. I call a friend (one of the criminal justice contacts that I used as a threat years before) and he gives good advice. My friend is unable to hide the comfort he takes in knowing about our problem; his son has been in serious trouble for years. It wasn’t a club I wanted to join, but I didn’t begrudge the camaraderie.
My youngest is of legal age now–which reduces my worries by at least half. I think we are all grateful that my suspicious nature, so rarely appreciated, proved useful. These young men are nicely on their way, though I do consider myself on retainer should the need arise.