Well, maybe not yesterday, but it seems that way. Two days ago I was writing a letter to his kindergarten teacher because I was worried he wasn’t being challenged, and yesterday he woke up as tall as me. And a funny thing happens when your child, especially your boy child, becomes as big – or bigger – than you:
The illusion of control vanishes.
We don’t spank in our house, and I can’t specifically remember a time when I’ve used physical coercion or my size advantage to make my kids do something, but I guess I always knew that I could. I could pick my baby up and carry him into bed, even if he didn’t want to take a nap. But now I can’t. I know I can’t – and so does he.
Last night we were arguing about something, and at one point Devin decided he was not going to respond any longer. He clenched his jaws shut, made eye contact with me and his father, and flat out refused to speak. Make me, he seemed to be challenging.
And all three of us knew that we couldn’t.
I stood in my kitchen and remembered the early years of my marriage, when his father would do basically the exact same thing. I would push, and he would shut down, and I would push even harder in a desperate attempt to get a response – any response was better than silence. I looked at my kid and the memories waltzed through my head in slow motion, all the pushing and cajoling and inciting I’d once tried to get a reaction. At the same oddly slow pace, my instinct to get a reaction out of Devin stepped up behind those old memories. Try this, it cooed. I pushed the Old Habit aside.
I took a deep breath. I went to my room and got a few sheets of notebook paper, and I came back to the kitchen and set the paper on the table. I handed him a pencil, told him to sit down, and asked him to write out whatever he was feeling.
“No one has to read it, but you need to get it out, somehow.”
He picked up the pencil and started angrily carving his words into the paper. I kissed him on the head, told him I loved him, and went to my PTO meeting. He was asleep when I came home, but this morning when we woke up he was once again pleasant and talking to everyone.
“Did the writing help?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but the Rip 60 Dad hung up in my room did.”
“Whatever works, I guess.”
He kind of laughed.
“Devin, I can’t make you do anything, I know that.”
“Yeah,” he agreed.
“But I’m asking you to stay in this family. Can you make that commitment?”
“I promise,” he said.
He hugged me and went to school.
I know that sounds like a strange thing to ask a 13-year-old kid, but I’m conscious of the fact that he doesn’t have to stay. Every time he walks out my door, he can choose not to come back. He tried to run away once, and I worry that he’s smart enough to get it right if he ever tried again. And I can’t make him stay.
The obvious lesson here is that we can’t make anyone stay. We can’t make them talk to us, hear us, love us, or be faithful to us. We can’t make them keep their promises. And that’s scary as hell, I think, so we cling to the illusion that we have some control. As long as we’re big enough – or nice enough, or good enough, or patient enough – then we can make the ones we love do what we need them to do.
And then someone grows up, and you realize that you can’t control anyone but yourself, and the only thing you can do is ask, hope, and trust – and trust yourself to be OK no matter what.