Beautiful and Terrible

A b-day 010Last week, Alex asked for a diary with a lock. “Not a girly one,” he specified.

“Why on earth do you need a diary with a lock?” I asked.

“To write things I don’t want you to see.” Duh.

“Like…like what kinds of things?” I wanted categories, you know, not details.

But he gave me The Look. “Things I don’t want you to see.”

I can’t tell you how much this exchange disturbed my peace of mind. On the one hand, it is inevitable–it is right and proper, even–for him to grow into his own individuality, a process that mandates a certain withdrawal from the intimacy of a parent and child in early childhood. And yet I have visions of all manner of dangerous things being withheld from my knowledge, preventing me from correcting misunderstanding or rescuing from danger. I reminded myself that Alex is pretty good about coming to us with questions and concerns, and I probably don’t need to freak out about it. But I searched Amazon for a non-girly diary with a sense of wistfulness.

It’s a beautiful and terrible thing to watch a child growing up. As he becomes increasingly autonomous, my ability to influence the development of his thoughts and attitudes wanes, and my living example becomes more and more critical. Which is a scary thought. Alex spent the first week of summer vacation losing his temper spectacularly at his siblings, Nicholas in particular. Nicholas is a button-pusher, and Alex is very protective of his belongings, even the ones that seem unimportant. Like a mylar balloon that’s been tied to the back of his chair since his birthday in April. Nicholas was batting it around, and Alex was screaming at him with rage. Now, Nicholas wasn’t doing anything wrong. Alex was completely overreacting. On the other hand, it is his balloon, and Nicholas wasn’t stopping because he likes pushing buttons. Whose side do you take in this situation?

But as I began thinking things through, I realized I do the same thing. Nicholas pushes my buttons, I overreact spectacularly. In fact, I was smack in the middle of a week in which I was feeling overwhelmed by the volume of what had to get done, and I, too, was flipping out at minor, but constant, infractions. I detour to clean up one mess, and thirty seconds later there’s another one. Michael Mayhem + Nicholas button-pusher + Julianna “how much does she understand?” + Alex surely-he’s-too-young-to-be-a-tween…writing it all down clarifies why it frequently overwhelms; that’s quite a combination of child stages and personalities, isn’t it?

But it doesn’t really matter what they throw at me. I’m still teaching them, by my example, about Christian life…accurately or not. I can teach them virtue, or I can teach them hypocrisy: platitudes that can’t stand up to the stresses of real life. My reaction to buttons pushed and messes made is my choice. I just frequently make a poor one.

Scarier yet is the realization that they’re going to remember things about me that I don’t remember doing or saying. There’s an “adult novelty” store that I pass by sometimes, and every time I do, I remember my mother idly wondering if a place like that might “accidentally” have what she needed to complete a farm task for which she hadn’t been able to problem solve a tool. Now, she wasn’t going to go in that store. It was just an offhand comment; I doubt she even remembers it. But I remember it frequently. Which makes me wonder: What am I saying that is making a lasting impression on my kids?

With all this in mind, I called Alex over. I told him frankly that he was not behaving well and neither was I, and we both needed to cool it. And go to confession, which we haven’t done since before Easter. In the last few days, I’ve been quite a bit better…Alex, not quite so much so.

The relationship between a parent and child, I’m realizing in deeper and deeper ways, is a beautiful and terrifying thing.