He’s seventeen. Six foot one and 175 pounds, all lean muscle, unflappable, analytical and far more empathetic than I was at his age. Sometimes I see the same slight curve to his nose that he had as a small child. Back then, he craned his neck and tilted his chin up to see the world, to see onto tabletops and the kitchen counter. I thought it was funny that he never thought to stand on tiptoe, but he’s always been a kid who knows how to keep his balance. Now, of course, there’s no need for tiptoes. There’s very little he can’t see by looking straight ahead with his steady gaze.
It’s late January, 2006. His first semester grades have just been posted, and I’m convinced he’s broken a promise. The deal was straight B’s, across the board, nothing lower. His first semester grades are a mix of one A, one B and the rest B minuses.
“A B minus is not a B,” say I.
“Mom, it evens out. I’ll have at least a B in everything by the end of the year.”
“But the deal was B’s, Paul,” I say. “It’s junior year. This counts. If you get at least a B on all of your assignments then you don’t have to worry about things evening out. What you’re doing now is letting things slide, then playing catch up to get back to a B. Don’t let anything fall below a B and you’ll never be behind. Isn’t that better?”
The conversation gets a little heated. He tells me I expect too much, he can’t do it. I tell him he’s smart, he’s capable of A’s in most classes and all I expect are B’s. He points out that we’ve had this same conversation for three years now and he’s always brought up his grades by the end of the year. I have to admit this is true. He reasons that the final grade is what appears on his transcript – that’s what matters.
“I’m a good guy, Mom. I don’t drink or smoke or cheat. I take care of the things I’m supposed to take care of.”
He looks exasperated, and torn between anger and hurt as he looks down at me. Then suddenly I’m looking down at him: he’s three years old, his floppy cornsilk hair flecked with pale blue toothpaste, his pudgy hands covered with toothpaste, too. He and a playmate have finger-painted the bathroom walls with Crest.
“Paulie – how could you? What were you thinking? Look at this mess!”
It’s the first time I’ve ever really scolded him. His lower lip trembles. Large tears spill from his wide blue eyes. He stamps a foot; toothpaste splatters across the floor.
“Pauwie nice boy!” he shouts at me.
I don’t remember if I did the right thing back then with two toothpaste-covered three-year-olds. I probably didn’t. I remember being angry, and resentful that I had to clean up yet another mess in yet another room when other messes, other rooms waited.
But I know what to do in front of my tall son. I smile. I feel the tension leave my shoulders. I reach up – way up – to squeeze his shoulder.
“You are a good guy, Paulie. I’m lucky to be your mom. And you go on being a good guy in your own way, B minuses and C’s included. I wouldn’t trade you for anyone else. You remind me of that every once in a while if I forget, okay?”
“Okay, Mom.” He smiles down at me.
My children rarely learned what I thought I was teaching them. Instead, they came away from my careful attention knowing only, and surely, that the way they see the world is right. Thank god for that. It took me far longer than it should have to figure out that there are really only two things worth hoping my kids learn from living with me. First, how to take care of themselves – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, ethically, financially, intellectually. And secondly, how to treat other people. If they can get those two things right, then everything else will follow.
They are grown now, the youngest in college this year, and the rest, self-supporting young adults. They know how to take care of themselves, and how to treat others. I wish I had realized sooner that staying out of their way and allowing them to become the people they were going to become anyway would have been simpler, happier, for all of us. My children did not need nearly as much from me as I so willingly and earnestly gave them. They needed only my unconditional love, and the freedom to step confidently away from that.
I’m not the first to learn more about how to be a better human being from my children than I did from my parents. And I’ve learned the most from Paul, the child least like me. Things have a way of working out for Paul. Or maybe it’s just that he’s willing to be reasonably happy with the way things go.
A few weeks after the semester grade discussion, we had a snow day, a rarity in Minnesota, where a foot of snow is taken in stride. I let the kids sleep in as long as they wanted to. Paul had been up very late the night before to begin and end a paper on Jane Eyre. He’d done well on an earlier Jane Eyre essay but bombed the multiple-choice test. His extraordinary English teacher offered to give him credit for an extra essay. Her philosophy: he knows the material, and there are no Scantron tests in real life.
So there was Paul, sleeping off a research and writing hangover while his younger sister and brother were out shoveling the front walk and romping with the dog. I made a big pan of cocoa. By the time Paul finally got up, the cocoa was cold, our drive had been plowed and so had the street and we didn’t seem quite so cut off from the rest of the world. A mixed blessing with a house full of teens. Paul wanted to call all his friends over so they could do their NCAA team picks.
“Well, how about that English paper, Paul? Now that you have all day, could it benefit from a little of your attention?”
“No, Mom. I made sure before I went to bed that it’s as good as it’s going to get.”
I realized I had to believe him. I said his friends could come over at 3:00. In the meantime, I said, you and John and Suzy enjoy the day with your wits and with the people you find yourselves with. No electronics, no TV. He headed to the kitchen to reheat the cocoa and get some breakfast. Half an hour later I found him in the basement, TV clicker in hand. I turned off the TV.
“Buster, you’ve lost your twenty dollar allowance this month. If you plug yourself into electronics again today, your friends can’t come over. Go outside. Bake some cookies. Play a game with your brother.”
He slowly pulled his long body off the couch. “Well, I guess I could shovel for Ms. Myers,” he mumbled.
Paul earned ten dollars each time he shoveled the long flight of steps at our neighbor’s house, a task he usually had to perform very early in the morning before school. It was the only time all winter that he wore a coat and boots. So he trudged across the street with our shovel.
He was back thirty minutes later, a little sweaty. Johnny followed him inside, pulling on his sleeve.
“She gave you twenty this time? Sweet!” said John.
“Yeah,” said Paul, putting the twenty-dollar bill in his wallet and grinning at me.
Of course, Paul didn’t look at this the way I did. I wanted to tell him that if he’d followed the rules, he’d have forty dollars. And he wouldn’t have had to work very hard for half of it. But he was happier with the twenty he worked hard to earn. The other twenty? He spent it doing what he wanted to do. Plus there was always the chance I wouldn’t catch him in front of the TV. Paul’s grin told me he regarded Ms. Myers’ bonus as divine providence. He left the house minus twenty dollars and returned with that twenty dollars restored through his own hard work. Who needs to get ahead when staying even feels just as good?
In the years since, our family has fallen apart and been put back together again, in a different format. My children kept their equilibrium only because I gave them, and myself, enough room to wobble. I’ve learned that allowances aren’t necessary once they can earn their own money, and that grades earned in high school are not a reliable predictor of success in adulthood, and are no help at all in discerning character. I’ve learned that video games and television don’t kill as many brain cells as I’d feared. I’ve learned that it’s essential to make time for NCAA picks, and probably not essential to look again at a completed task when I already know I’ve done the best I’m able, or willing, to do. I hope I will laugh with toothpaste-covered grandchildren, and I hope I will never ask them about their grades. I’ve learned that keeping my balance doesn’t always look graceful; that it can, in fact, be completely graceless.
If I am honest, I will admit that my children succeed as much in spite of me as because of me. They are beloved exactly as they are. In the balancing act that parenthood has always been, I wish I had seen sooner that that’s enough.
2007, rev. 1/11, 1/12