When you have a kid you think two things: I hope he’s just like me, and I hope he’s nothing like me. And usually you get your wish, although more than likely in a Monkey’s Paw kind of way. “I see, so you have my excessive leg hair but somehow zero of my preternaturally good rhythm. OK, go brush your teeth.”
And sometimes the differences are so astonishing, you think surely, were it not for his excellent comic timing, you just might accuse the hospital of a mix-up!
These were the thoughts that were running through my head last week when I found myself sitting on the floor, trying to console my 7-year-old son as he told me, through some seriously ugly tears (OK, so we are genetically related), that he has too many friends! Yeah. I know. You know how people play a game in their head about all the ways in which they would spend their Mega-Ultra-Hardcore Lottery winnings? Well I do the same thing except instead of ways to spend money, I imagine all the troubles my son will inevitably face and all the ways in which I will comfort him. But never in a million years did I think I would be wiping away tears while my baby confessed to me, “It’s just that everyone wants to play with me and sometimes I just want to play by myself!”
I tried really hard not to laugh in his face. I mean, how is this a thing? Looking back on my own childhood, there were plenty of breakdowns and ugly tears, but usually they began and ended with proclamations like, “Why do I have such a big nose?!” and “I just want to look American!” But with my son writhing around on the floor, I knew I had to take him seriously. See, my son is not me. He’s a bit of a leader. Kids listen to him. No, he’s not some Adonis, athletic child. He’s very small for his age (and no, he won’t catch up—both my husband and I are shorties, but thanks for your concern), and despite some early athletic promise, he’s distanced himself from sports.
What he is, though, is funny, smart and imaginative. He is also confident in a way that is, quite frankly, out of proportion with his actual gifts. I mean he’s funny, but he’s no Robin Williams (aside from the aforementioned extra body hair). He’s smart, but he’s not off the charts or anything. But the thing with my kid is he sort of thinks he’s great at everything, despite my occasional assurances that he actually isn’t. I’m not being harsh. My parents told me everything I did was brilliant. It had an inverse reaction. I had crippling self-esteem issues and, eventually, their praise became meaningless. So while I tell my son a hundred times a day how lucky I am to be his mom, I also try to parcel out a dose of reality now and then. “Mom, isn’t my impression of John Travolta amazing?” “It’s OK, honey. It’s not like I’d mistake you for him or anything.”
But apparently, simply being outgoing and talkative and thinking you’re as funny as Will Ferrell draws the other second-graders to you. He’s like David Koresh without the long-term goals. And, it turns out, being a cult leader can be a lot of pressure when you just want to spend recess talking to yourself as you pretend to be every single Avenger and, possibly, Groucho Marx.
I assured him it was OK to say to his friends, “Hey, I just want to play by myself today, guys.” But he was really concerned about hurting the feelings of one boy in particular. My son isn’t the most considerate child in the world. He’s had to be reminded over and over to show interest in others. This is a kid who, when told by his first-grade teacher to write down that his New Year’s resolution was to help someone if they fell, insisted that would be a lie as it wasn’t his New Year’s resolution. So I was extremely proud of him in that moment. I could tell he was genuinely concerned about hurting his pal’s feelings. And so, I had the unfamiliar task of telling my son that while, yes, he needs to be aware of other people’s feelings and take them into consideration, he can’t be responsible for other people. It was a tricky lesson to impart, but I think he got it—or got it as much as a 7-year-old egomaniac can.
The next day, I accompanied him as he awkwardly explained to his friend that he wanted to play by himself but that it was in no way a reflection of his feelings about the kid, and he still wants to be his friend. (It’s not you, it’s me.) And after all the hysterics (and my internal fretting), the kid just shrugged his shoulders and said, “OK.”
So I guess it is possible to be a kind person as well as someone who draws boundaries for himself. Perhaps if I had been taught the same lesson as a child, I wouldn’t be the people-pleaser and eggshell-walker that I am today. Then I’d really be able to tell my son how much his Travolta impression sucks.