I thought I ought to start out the year on a strong positive note. Maybe brag about something great I
do, or about a particularly honed parenting skill I have. Something like that. So there’s this.
The other day we were in our friends’ car. Okay, minivan. This is the suburbs, and we did have seven people, so what else you gonna use? (Parenthetically, one wonders if this detail is necessary to the story. Does it matter where we were? It matters that we were two families together. It matters that the space was enclosed. It probably also matters that I was, technically, a guest in this vehicle preferred by suburbanites. Does it also matter that we were two families together, but we weren’t two complete families, since our friends’ older children were not with us? This detail doesn’t matter to you, Readers, but it matters to the picture of my friends’ family, and it might matter to my friends.)
Anyway, we were going somewhere (I’m being intentionally vague here, so as not to bother readers with unnecessary detail, not to appear mysterious.) Oh, hell, we were going to cut our Christmas trees. Yes, we are Jewish. Yes, we celebrate Christmas. Yes. So, we’re tooling along, the kids in the way back, when I hear the 5th grader say something. I don’t remember what. Then the 9th grader says to the 5th grader, “Nobody cares.” Then I hear giggling. Heh-heh, I’m just kidding. Heh-heh, they’re all laughing, maybe. I can’t turn my neck far enough to see everyone back there. I’m not an owl. “Nobody cares.” It’s just a joke, this little sledgehammer phrase pummeling the younger child’s sense of worth. So I say something like, “Hey, I don’t like that kind of comment. It’s unkind and unnecessary.” Maybe I tell the older to apologize to the younger girl. Maybe she does.
This exchange naturally caught the attention of the others in the vehicle (see – enclosed space was the important detail, because otherwise how would readers know I could have heard this comment made by my child and believe that everyone else present could have, too?) and led the adults to comment. My friend, let’s call him Mark – as in, “he’s an easy….” – said something like, “Kids will be kids.” Something genial, to diffuse any tension. Although I’m not saying there was any tension. The whole exchange worked like a reflex. After all the 9th grader is in, well, 9th grade, and the 5th grader has been around almost eleven years, so I’ve had a lot of training in sibling interactions. It was like a call-and-response between me and them. No stress. No tension. Indeed, almost no thought involved in my reaction.
“My brother used to say stuff like that to me all the time,” continued let’s-call-him-Mark. He was driving, and I was a comfortable passenger in his vehicle. “He used to tease me all the time, and I turned out—“
“Bald!” I said. Maybe shouted. “You turned out bald!”
We all laughed heartily, me especially, because, you know, it was kind of funny. And let’s-call-him-Mark isn’t actually bald, not totally; what he has is a receding hairline. So, you know, in the split second before I said what I said, I thought that it would be funny partly because he’s not actually 100% bald. So it would be even more unexpected.
When I say that we all laughed, by the way, I mean that the children didn’t laugh. They were not paying attention to us adults. They were busy playing games on their iPods instead of looking out the window at the lovely scenery. So the four of us laughed. Although, upon closer consideration, I suspect maybe it was only three of us, because immediately after I caught my breath from having heartily enjoyed my own clever riposte, the husband said, “You know, right after correcting the 9th grader, you say THIS?”
Of course our friends came to my rescue. The joke was totally different. It wasn’t the same thing at all. When the 9th grader said, “Nobody cares” to the 5th grader, it was mean because there’s an inequality in power between them that doesn’t exist between me and let’s-call-him-Mark. Anyway, calling him bald was funny because it was absurd to conflate turning out fine with baldness, when the two have nothing to do with each other, so I wasn’t trying to quash his ego. On the other hand, that was just my train of thought. Maybe let’s-call-him-Mark had private insecurities about his hair that I’d fed through my moment of careless high-spirits.
We continued along our merry way, stopped for a big breakfast, cut down those trees, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Periodically, however, I kept wondering if the husband didn’t have a point. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that periodically, the realization that the husband had a point intruded on my enjoyment. After all, we learn by example, do we not? Which is more effective, the “don’t say that” reflex, or the thing you actually do that requires (a least a moment) of planning and gets a laugh?
So let’s congratulate me for teaching my children how to be kind to one another. I’m saying it aloud, because it’s a new year, and I’m starting on a positive note. Also, I thought I’d pass along my experience to you, so that you might learn wisdom from me. Because I have a lot of it, apparently. Bursting forth, like uncensored wit, and ready to share. So here it is: you can kill, or you can be kind, but you can’t kill with kindness. In other words, remember to do what I say, and not what I do.
(Parenthetically, I’m hoping I’m right that the kids weren’t listening.)
©Hope A. Perlman
This post originally appeared on www.unmappedcountry.com