I’d always thought it was the grown-ups who got to make the rules. But now that I’m the mother of tweens, I realize how wrong I was.
The tender age of eleven has dawned for my twins Henry and Philip. Consequently, they have begun to hiss the words, “Don’t embarrass me.” In response I tend to laugh merrily, but when I find the boys still glaring at me, I try to reassure them. “Of course I won’t embarrass you!” I say. “I would never do that.”
By promising not to embarrass them, I thought all they meant was that I not do something like call them my “little cuddle-kins”—which, please, I would never do anyway.
One day last month I dropped the boys off in the recess yard before school began. I trotted over to the bagel store, and when I circled back toward the school, there stood Henry and Philip, conveniently positioned in the recess yard by the wire fence. Some cool kids nearby were playing basketball. Still on the sidewalk, I came over toward my sons, and I kind of pretend-yelled through the fence, “Help! I’m imprisoned in the outside world!” Henry instantly hurried away, shaking his head and waving his hands as one might while warding off a crazy person. Philip just narrowed his eyes and said, “Bye, Mom.”
“Love you guys!” I trilled.
The next day, as we were still half-a-block away from the school, Henry said, “Mom, don’t say anything to me now.”
“But I have to say good-bye to you!” I protested.
He began to speed up.
“Have a great day!” I called to his retreating back. “I love you!”
Philip said, “You don’t have to say you love us.”
“Of course I have to say I love you!”
“It’s really not necessary.”
“But I at least have to wish you a good day.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Look,” I said. “If some kids hear me say I love you and that I hope you have a good day, what are they gonna think? Either they’re gonna think, ‘Hey, my parents say that to me, too.’ Or they’re gonna think, ‘Wow, I wish I had parents who said that to me.’ Either way, nothing bad happens.”
We reached the part of the block where the recess yard began. Philip’s pace quickened.
“Love you!” I called.
He started running.
“Have a great day!” I added.
Isn’t it terrific when kids are eager to get to school? Both boys now sprint away from me every morning.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember not to show affection to my kids in public. One recent weekday morning my boys and I got into a crowded elevator in our apartment building. The elevator was crammed with other kids and their parents. Henry lingered in the door frame for a moment, and I tugged on his coat sleeve. “Don’t block the door, sweet one,” I said.
Downstairs the boys and I leaned into a cold wind. Henry rushed in front of me, head bowed, walking briskly.
“Henry!” I called. “Don’t get too far away!”
He turned, and his face looked stony.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. Instantly I was thinking: he has abdominal pain. His finger got caught in something. His knee is about to buckle.
He stood and waited for me to catch up. Once I did, he said grimly, “You don’t have to call me ‘sweet one’ in an elevator.”
I was taken aback–I’d hardly been aware I’d even said it. Calling my children by terms of endearment comes as naturally to me as squinting in bright sunlight.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
His stance eased into something more relaxed. But he still didn’t talk to me during our ten-minute walk to school.
After all, there was another boy nearby, strolling in the same general direction. Not a child my boys knew—not one that even goes to their school. But a child nonetheless.
I’ve come to realize that kids act as kryptonite for other kids’ parents. As soon as there’s another child in the vicinity, I lose about 90 percent of my powers over my own children. In the presence of a child under the age of fifteen, I am not to speak with Henry and Philip. I’m not to acknowledge them. I am only to slink quietly away.
Even at home I have begun to encounter new rules. I used to trot out various sayings for the boys, but these now elicit exasperation. The other day the boys were discussing the various awful things one of their former teachers used to do, and they wondered whether they’d always remember those misdeeds. “It’s like what Maya Angelou said,” I piped up. “’People won’t remember what you did. People won’t remember what you said. But people will always remember how you made them feel.’”
A small silence followed, which I happily imagined was filled by the quiet reflections of young minds. But then the silence was punctured. “I know that!” bellowed Henry. “You’ve only told us that about ten times!”
It seems, too, that the prohibitions extend not only to what I say, but how I say it.
Recently Henry was lounging on the sofa before school when he remarked, “I’m so glad I go to my new school. It’s much better than my old one.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” I said. “Now, what makes you say that?”
“I’ve already told you,” he said. “But okay—the environment is better, the students are nice, my teacher is funny.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said.
“But those are just a few ways it’s better.”
“Sure, but they each have a lot of weight to them.”
Henry straightened up. “Don’t speak in metaphors!”
“Did I?” I asked. “I guess I did. But something having weight to it—that’s really just kind of an idiom that people use.”
“It’s a metaphor,” Henry assured me. “And you’re not allowed to speak in metaphors. You have to talk in an ordinary way.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
I bustled about, putting the boys’ backpacks near the front door and getting my coat out of the closet. After a moment Henry said musingly, “I’m lucky I was torn from the flesh of my old school.”
“You used a metaphor!” I cried.
“Well, it’s fine when I use one,” he explained. “It’s just you who can’t use them.
We have arrived at the kingdom of the eleven-year-olds. Life is different here. In this strange land, the very essence of a parent can irritate a preadolescent child. And there are rules here, many rules—for the grown-ups.
Photo by antony_mayfield
When I would get off the subway with my mother in our neighborhood in Brooklyn, we took different routes back to our apartment. I didn’t want any of my friends to see her with me. It was a rule I made that she followed assiduously. Remembering that makes it much easier not to be offended by the rules my boys now impose on me. The rules will change.