Yesterday I had three six-year-old boys in my living room playing Legos. The play date was coming to an end and Sam, one of my son’s oldest friends, wanted to bring home the storm-trooper-on-a-motorcycle that he had fashioned out of Smoke’s Legos.
“No, you can’t take it with you,” Smoke told him, “because last time when you borrowed my Bionicle it broke and you never brought it back.”
I was sitting on the couch grading papers, and I looked up to appreciate the line he’d just drawn. I was struck by the absolute clarity of Smoke’s answer, and also his even delivery. His voice was calm. It wasn’t loaded with resentment or grief. He was simply calling it like he saw it.
But, Sam was not impressed. “I never asked to borrow it. You just left it at my house.”
Cody, a new friend who wasn’t privy to this history, joined in Sam’s defense. “He didn’t ask to borrow it, so it’s not the same.”
The helicopter parent in me poised to jump in, to restate Smoke’s position and make sure it was honored, but that turned out to be unnecessary. “Well I never got it back,” Smoke told both of them. He took a breath. “Sam, here’s what what we can do. I won’t take apart your motorcycle.” Sam was nodding already, relieved at the idea of compromise. “And if you fix my Bionicle and bring it back, then you can borrow it after all.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a boundary set so cleanly. My son didn’t learn that skill from me. I’ve only recently learned that my relationships don’t have to follow a script, that when someone makes a request of me I’m not required to give them the answer they’re hoping for. Lately, I try to catch myself in the act of delivering a line, of giving a Yes or a Maybe when what I really mean is No. I try to remind myself that I can give the answer I actually mean, but that answer never comes out easily. I stall, I stammer, or my voice trembles, or it’s tainted with defensiveness.
But Smoke’s gentle assertiveness makes me wonder: What do we know before we un-know it? What communication skills are we born with that time corrodes? And what can I do to preserve in my kids their own clarity, their intuition, their emotional intelligence?
Two nights ago both of my kids were still awake at ten pm. It’s June in the Pacific Northwest and so it’s still light at nine, and of course there are barbecues and spontaneous visits and deer sightings that get in the way of our bedtime routine. But no matter the reason, I start to lose my mind at ten pm when my kids are still awake, and on this day Stump, my 2-year-old, had just insisted on a snack.
“Goldfish,” Stump said after his bath and then he repeated the word “Goldfish” at least two dozen times. I knew he wouldn’t quit and I was too tired to fight, so I sat him at the kitchen table with a small pile of Goldfish crackers. But it turned out that he wanted the Goldfish crackers, not to eat, but to construct an interpretive scene. I sat in a neighboring chair and leaned my head against my hand. I was done.
“No cry Mommy,” Stump whispered, and he brushed his fingers across my cheek. “No cry Mommy.”
No one in the history of my lifetime has ever been able to pull me out of a funk so easily. I hadn’t been on the verge of tears, but Stump’s empathy perked me up, and I laughed. Stump laughed too and continued to touch my face. “No cry, Mommy. It’s okay, Mommy.” He was teasing me and comforting me at once.
I wished that Kellie had been there to witness Stump’s feat of emotional intelligence. Earlier that evening I had complained to her about some problem and she responded by saying “Why do you let that bother you?”
“That doesn’t help!” I told her, but when she asked me what she could say, I could only answer: “I don’t know!”
But now here was Stump, hours past bedtime, rescuing me from myself, as if he arrived in this world knowing all my secret codes and how to crack them.