Today I watched two very different scenes unfold around my son. I recalled again what I hope my son takes from our life together. I hope that I can continue to surround him with people who love him, who value him simply because he is on this earth.
My son is going through what I would call a "testing boundaries" phase. I would call it the "terrible 2's" - but he is now 4, so that doesn't fit exactly. At 2 he was a sweet, loveable little guy. This phase, well it likely began some months ago, and continues on. He challenges authority. He pushes me to find out where the lines are, and add that to his ordinary level of energy, and well, he wears me out somedays. He is a very different animal from his sister. He is stubborn. And I don't mean the ordinary stubborn-ness that little kids have. I mean he is obstinate. When he doesn't get what he wants, he can hold a grudge like no other kid I have known. He will argue with me. He will cry, whine and generally make life miserable for those around him when life is not progressing as he hoped.
I must admit to having lost my patience more than once or twice with him. Overall, he is and remains my child at heart. While he is stubborn, I can see now as an adult how stubborn-ness is at times a gift. While he is testing boundaries, I can see the importance of being consistent with him. Still, I don't know if it's because he had health issues early on...but he gets away with more than his sister did at this age. Or perhaps she just didn't push the envelope the way he does. I'm not certain. Regardless, I am not oblivious to the fact that he can be a challenging child.
Today I was reminded in a direct way what I hope for him to get from the adults in his life. When I was child I was taught that adults were by and large infallible. Certainly we were not to question the adults in our lives. If they made a mistake, well, I was taught to overlook that fact, and to not expect an amends. I grew up in a household, and in a larger family, that was not amused by children. We were typically to be seen and not heard, and we were taught that until we were grown up, we had little to nothing to offer the family. It's strange that I would wind up the person I am today. The way I parent is drastically different than the way I was taught.
When we walked into church this morning, we were greeted by the people we ordinarily see. My son was excited to be there. Sunday school was starting up again for the year, and as he put it, "he missed Ms. Ruth" - his teacher. As he hugged the adults we saw walking in, he was swept up in the arms of our priest. He was happy to see him as well. When he finished with sunday school and he came into the service, towards the end, he was fairly calm and cooperative with me. As we went forward to accept the Eucharist, he became a little bit of a tyrant. He was pulling, pushing and generally acting out. When it came his turn to take the bread, he held his hand out. One hand contained gum he had just taken out of his mouth in preparation for communion, and the other hand he used to take the bread from our priest. Unfortunately, at 4, his communication skills are lacking at times, and because I didn't understand what was happening either, our priest asked him if he was going to eat the bread. I don't think my son knew how to respond, so he was quiet. The ordinary course of events at the altar is that he accepts the bread from the celebrant, and then dips it into the cup of wine when the chalice bearer comes to us shortly thereafter. However in a comedy of errors, our priest ended up taking the bread back from him, misunderstanding his intent.
As we walked back to our pew, my son leaned close to me and said quietly, "Father Steve is mean." I couldn't help but giggle a little bit. After the service, I tried to explain that our priest didn't understand, that he had just made a mistake. Regardless, the boy was angry. After church, I explained to my priest what had happened. A few minutes later he appeared smiling with a giant wafer to give to my son. I didn't get to witness him giving it to him, but a bit later this child of mine came running to me and told me, "Father Steve gave me the BIG bread." He was happy. Pleased with himself and with our priest. If I was a therapist, I would say his feelings were validated.
Later on in the day, I took my kids to an art fair and to play in a nearby park. My son ran, jumped and rode his scooter around the large park. We were joined by a friend and her infant daughter. Both of my kids had fun, but by the time we got back to our car late in the afternoon, my baby was worn out. But ever the ball of energy, he managed to run to the car and hop in his car seat. On the way to a relative's house, he fell asleep in the back seat. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at her home. I had to wake my child up as we got out of the car to see her. He good-naturedly greeted her and began to do what he ordinarily does at her house - color and play with stickers. As he played, he chatted about his favorite stickers, favorite colors and what he had been doing that day. While he was still tired, he was fairly happy.
I should explain that in the past several months, I have decreased my visits to this relative's home. While I used to take my kids there fairly often, I have found for my own sanity, it is better if we go less often. Everything my kids do and everything they don't do is scrutinized. It seems they notice this on some level, and seem to act badly more so than usual when we're there. I can't explain the phenomenon, but it seems to hold true most days when we're there.
As if on cue, my son began getting an attitude. I don't know why. Maybe it was just his time to act out, or maybe he was getting overly tired. Perhaps he was even getting hungry. I don't have a great explanation for it. But it started. He began getting mouthy and not being cooperative about picking up, listening, etc. Before I could respond to his unruly behavior, my relative said to him pointedly, "You don't know how to act right at home, but you won't act that way here." I must've looked slightly taken aback. Because then she turned to me and said something about how I didn't know how to handle my children. This should have been my cue. I likely should've gathered the kids up at that point and gotten ready to go home. But, trying to remain polite, I scolded my child and turned back to what I had been doing. Of course because he is my son, he was not going to be outdone. He stomped across the floor into the kitchen. This time my relative scolded him and put him in time out. I didn't find this punishment inappropriate, although I will say I don't find time out to be particularly effective with my son. Still, I held my tongue. When his time out was through, I gathered up our things and we ended the visit. As we went to the car, my family member doted on my daughter (who had been well-behaved this visit) and didn't speak to my son. The message to him was loud and clear. And my own face reddened slightly at the way she was treating my child. She is one of the older generation in my family (those over 50) who still believe children should be seen and not heard. I question to some degree why I subject my kids to these folks, but for whatever reason I cannot entirely cut the biological cord that connects me to them.
As I drove home, I thought over these two seemingly unrelated incidents of my son's encounter with adults that are not me. I wondered what the experiences looked like to my child. If I could read the thoughts playing in his head, what would they tell me about who my son is growing up to be? Of all the influences that I allow him to experience, which ones are the ones that stick with him? It didn't take me too long to know.
This evening as we prepared for bed, I asked him to say prayers. As he went through his litany of "thank you for ... and God bless...." I reminded him to thank God for our family and friends. He did, not by name as he sometimes does when he wants prayers to last awhile, but as a group. Then just before his "Amen" he whispered quietly, "and thank you for Father Steve" and he smiled at me.