A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
Children Behind Fists
When Keefe was about five-years-old, the son of a friend bequeathed him a big box of action figures, mostly comic book characters, that he was outgrowing. This was clearly a gift offered in love and hard to refuse, but when we brought them home and Janice took a good look it was a jarring moment. “I’m not sure I feel comfortable with these guys, Keefe,” she ventured gently. “So many of them look so angry, they’ve got these huge weapons or some of them even have weapons instead of hands, and they just overall look so mean I’m not sure they’re the kind of toys I want to welcome into our home. They scare me a little.”
Keefe looked up at her earnestly and said “But mom, if you look deep into their hearts, there’s love there.”
Defused, the moment passed, and his mom smiled. In the days to come we would both try to encourage in play something beyond the simplistic triumph-by-force those snarling plastic faces evoked. Naturally with mixed success. Keefe offered his diminutive villains opportunities to surrender or reform, but their faces, rigidly molded, never managed a smile.
I miss those days. It was a simpler time, and I like to imagine myself as a comforting buddy figure to Keefe back then. He was highly articulate, mainly optimistic, and was happy just to play with us. That period in your child’s life can be totally exhausting, and of course that is far from the only reason why we wish for them to grow beyond us. Still, you’ve got to cling to the innocence of that time of attachment while it lasts, so the memory can sustain you in years to come which will be more adversarial.
This Sunday, while having the variety of temper tantrum unique to the newly pubescent, Keefe hauled off and punched me in the face. Since many of you may lack the experience of being thus plowed by your child, allow me to offer the advice of experience:
What to do when your child punches you in the face
No, really. You may forget to breathe, or, far more likely, you may react faster than it takes you to breathe. A couple of long deep breaths go a long way towards helping you process various sudden pains. Do not strike back, because it’s just going to escalate things. Keefe is a big kid – just shy of thirteen. He’s got two inches on his mom and two shoe sizes on me. If the two of us devolved into an all out brawl, we could conceivably do serious injury to each other.
The first time Keefe popped me in the face, I sort of mentally went away for a few moments, and when I could feel clearly again, a few breaths later, the first sensation I was cognizant of was enormous relief. “Thank you.” I said. Sure, my tone was sarcastic as hell, but I won’t apologize for that. “No, really, I mean that. I’m glad to discover that no matter how furious and hurt I feel in this moment, I don’t have the reflex to hit you back. I’m going downstairs.” Janice was in the middle of a frustrated moment with Hugh at the time; both of our children were overtired and more reactive than usual that day.
Some days are like that. Every parent knows it. But this was unprecedented. Of course, because he is at heart a decent person, and this sort of reaction is genuinely unlike him, Keefe beat himself up far more effectively than I might have. He was desperately contrite. One of the ongoing struggles in the household had centered on his pledge to learn to type, and his general unwillingness to sit at the keyboard in order to do so. As a gesture, he wrote a long apology and tried to compose some sort of journal entry about his feelings and intentions to reduce the conflict between us. A nice gesture, but still. Sunday wasn’t the first time Keefe punched me in the face. That was in July. We are now up to number three.
Keefe had a very busy day Saturday. An invitation out in the afternoon to a nearby fair with one friend, to stuff himself with cotton candy and soda despite knowing that what is true of most children when they have too much sugar is doubly so of him, followed up by a late birthday party with many 'tween friends from school, and an extra late bedtime. As Janice and I finally curled up in bed I mused that the next day he would require handling with kid gloves because he would almost certainly be a little volatile. I was correct.
Now I’ve always said that blame is a valueless concept. The impulse that makes us feel better through the catharsis of finger-pointing has never assisted in resolving any human conflict, and research galore proves that punitive responses to what society considers wrongdoing does nothing to decrease recidivism. Nevertheless, a small part of me blames him for the bruise around my left eye, and I’m glad I can acknowledge it without it directing me anywhere I don’t want to go. Both Jan and I are simultaneously second-guessing various major parenting decisions we’ve made with Keefe since about forever. I’m trying not to waste too much time on that kind of self-doubt, either. Time goes forward, as shall I. Very little matters to me more than figuring out how to make certain my dire tally doesn’t reach number four.
Normally, my impulse when confronted with strong emotional moments is to retreat into some time alone, to walk in a wood and talk to myself to make sure I still seem to sound like I’m making sense, and it’s ironic that this event has coincided with Janice battling flu and Hugh contracting chicken pox. The Tuesday beforehand we had fifty houseguests for dinner (not a typo), and plans are already afoot for a perhaps similarly ambitious Halloween event. Looming larger are preexisting plans for Keefe’s thirteenth birthday party, only a week away as I write this, with a handful of boisterous teens and horror movies. Even sooner, we’ve lined up some counseling for Keefe, allowing the experts to suggest whether it ought to be with me or solo, and last night we cracked the spine together on ‘the Anger Control Workbook’, which we shopped for Sunday night after everyone in the house had had the chance to regain at least a little equilibrium. Tomorrow will be my first opportunity for a couple of hours completely to myself, to hopefully get back an even keel.
Tonight, I can’t say for sure
what, if anything, I’ve learned or gained out of this whole ugly process.
It’s just too close right now.
All of the effort I’ve directed over the summer to improving the
tools I use as a parent rings rather hollow and deflated, and I feel old and
shaky. Perhaps all this pain is
in part the birth pangs of a new and more balanced rapport between us that
somehow must be built upon the demolished foundations of the old.
I know that as I have been evolving, the old familiar patterns
between us have unraveled, and that creates anxiety and conflict all by
itself. Keefe’s hormonal
process has firmly placed him with one foot in two worlds, all cartoons-and-Legos
one minute and nude-celebrities-on-the-Internet-and long-bathroom-breaks-in-the-next,
and I shouldn’t be surprised if he’s at least two different people I
have to somehow live with. Mostly,
the summer’s been great for us. He
is reaching that time in his life I’ve been looking forward to where his
social skills and general presentability carry more weight than how his toys
or game system measure up. We’ve
been able to share more adult humor and more mature conversation and it’s
been good. That flying fist,
that rigid snarl like the painted plastic ones forgotten in a bin upstairs,
they’re a whole different animal than I want to be dealing with.
There’s a rage and a pain underneath them that I can’t see the
origins of, and I can’t get comfortable with.
But underneath all that, if you look deep into his heart, there’s
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