the sillies

I Found The Secret To A Good Relationship With My 8-Year-Old

Sarcasm, it turns out, works for us.

Winnie Bruce / 500px/500px/Getty Images

When my boys get off the school bus each afternoon, my 6-year-old son runs into my arms for a hug. I embrace him happily, then throw my arms open again as his 8-year-old brother approaches.

He runs toward me as if to run into my arms too, then sprints off to the side with a giggle. “Get away!” he shouts.

“You don’t want to give your mama a hug?” I call.

“No!” he yells as he climbs in the car.

To a casual observer, it may seem disrespectful. It may seem like I have one son who loves me and one son who doesn’t want anything to do with me. In my head, I can hear my own mother’s admonition: “You let your son tell you to get away?” But my oldest son and I have an amazing relationship, and it’s because I let him tease me. I know full well he feels he’s “too big” for hugs; I know full well when I throw my arms open to him with a big goofy grin on my face he’s going to pass me right by. But teasing has become our love language.

As the oldest of four kids, he has all of the quintessential “oldest kid” problems: I expect the most from him. I ask him to help clean up messes that he had nothing to do with. I ask him to keep an eye on the little ones while I run to the bathroom or turn on the oven for dinner.

And at 8 years old, he does these things, often without complaint. But he’s still 8 years old, and I worry about him becoming too serious, too mature before his time, and too much of a teenager, already complaining about homework and disappearing into his room for hours to call his friends to play Minecraft together. I want to connect with him on a lighthearted level, and when he wants to act like a silly 8-year-old, I want to let him act like a silly 8-year-old.

I don’t know how it started. One day the little boy who needed me to kiss his booboos to magically heal them stopped telling me he loved me, stopped offering hugs. I admit I was a little hurt, so I likely started the teasing as a defense mechanism. “Tommy, don’t you want to give your mama a good luck hug before the soccer game in front of all your friends?” “Tommy, wouldn’t you rather stay home and play LEGOs with your mama instead of going to your friend’s house?”

And then, he started teasing me back. One night as I was tucking him into bed (because thank goodness he does still need me for that), he peaked his head out from under the covers and whispered: “Mama?” “Yes?” I replied. “I love …” he started, and I leaned in, eager to hear the words my 8-going-on-18-year-old has been too cool to say to me for a long time.

“Weekends,” he finished and dissolved into giggles.

I couldn’t help but laugh too. I wasn’t expecting him to make a joke of it. I thought 8 was far too young to tease your mother, let alone know what would make a good joke. I’ve tried not to let on how much I long to hear my firstborn tell me he loves me. But there we were at bedtime, laughing at what was basically my expense.

It feels unconventional. I know my parents’ generation certainly wouldn’t have stood for their kids teasing them. “Parents and children should not be friends,” they’d say. “Children should respect their parents.”

But I impart that to my son, and I do feel he respects me. I’m careful to set boundaries. He can tease me as long as it’s never truly mean-spirited. There are times when we need to be serious, like when we’re rushing to get off to school in the morning or if we’re walking on a busy sidewalk. I’m quick to draw a line if I need to and let him know who’s in charge, whether he’s procrastinating his homework or if I catch him antagonizing his brothers. It just takes one warning from me, one uttering of his name in a sharp tone, and he shapes up. And we can go back to being comfortable with each other, loving, in our way.

In other words: when he wants to be a silly 8-year-old, I’m silly right along with him.

Lauren Davidson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor focusing on parenting, arts and culture, and weddings. She has worked at newspapers and magazines in New England and western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in English and French. She lives with her editor husband, four energetic kids, and one affectionate cat. Follow her on Twitter @laurenmylo.