It’s in the 20s here again today and it’s been about a week of this frigid weather, so this morning I faced one of my biggest fears: THE INDOOR PLAYGROUND. Indoor playgrounds are like breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses. Trap a bunch of snot-nosed kids in a room with soft equipment, turn on the heat, and let ‘em run amok? Who came up with this?! It’s the worst idea ever. Last time we were at this particular playground, a multi-tiered, four-level climbing gym where my children get lost and I have to climb my ass through chutes and over nets to save them, some kid pooped on the top level and it got smeared and trampled by a thousand tiny socked-feet before the grownups wayyyy down on the ground level found out about it.
So, yeah. If disliked indoor playgrounds before, I absolutely loathe them now, and would do just about anything to totally avoid them. Picture me, restless all night long, dreaming of poopy hands reaching out to touch Violet’s face, runny noses rubbing Noah’s arm. This morning, I ripped off the covers, marched into the bathroom, glared at myself in the mirror and, breathing hard at my reflection, made the following speech. “THIS IS IT. GET IN THERE, ROGGENDORFF! (*slaps face*) YOU GET IN THERE. YOU SHOW THOSE MOTHER FUCKERS WHO RUNS THIS TOWN! YOU MAKE ‘EM YOUR BITCH! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!”
We came, we played, we conquered. (Well, time will tell if we conquered. Viruses have incubation periods, after all. But at least there was no visible poop involved, and I consider that a victory, unfortunately.) On the way home, per norm, Mr. Chatterbox starts saying weird things from his car seat.
It’s always from the back seat of the car that Noah suddenly says the most horrifying things. It’s either that he has nothing to do except sit there and think and, like me, his thoughts eventually seem to all turn dark, or that he knows I can’t do anything about it when he expresses those dark thoughts because I’m stuck driving the car, but he uses his time back there to frighten the living hell out of me. It’ll be all quiet, peaceful, sunlight pouring in the car through the long, thin shadows of pine trees, the rest of us are like fuckin’ smiling and humming to ourselves and he’ll just break out with “If a police pulls us over, I’ll get a stick and stab him in the throat and kill him. And then I’ll throw him in the garbage.” (I’ll never forget that doozy. It was three or four months ago now, and it was (up to that point) the most insane thing he’d ever said. I almost wrecked the car.)
So on the way home today, he’s revving his engine. “I’m a good guy, Mom. But I need to KILL the bad guys. The bad guys are so bad, that I need to kill them.” Now, I’m familiar with this line of thinking. In addition to it being a central theme in many of the movies and stories we all hold dear, Noah has been very fascinated with the topic of late. “Good guys” and “bad guys” and their place in the world are very interesting ponderings in his little head these days. I have not responded well, I’m afraid.
No, because I am terrified of my children’s awareness of violence, I’m learning about myself. And rightfully so, on the one hand. Seeing children at the park play with pretend guns, running around screaming “kill” and “die” and “shoot” just makes the movie in my head flash forward to those same kids in 20 years, being convicted of homicide. Lance and I have been very careful with the words we’ve used around Noah, and the shows and movies we’ve let him watch, and the stories we’ve read together. There will come a time when he will understand death and evil people, right? Why rush it, right?
Then he goes to preschool and learns it all, anyway.
A few days ago Noah told me he did something so bad he couldn’t tell me what it was. I pressed him until he finally admitted something so minor I don’t even remember what he said. I think he accidentally tripped the dog or something. He was that worried about my reaction to his accidental violence? Hmmm. Yesterday he said “I hate beans,” and then immediately apologized. “Why?” I asked, honestly perplexed. “For saying hate,” he mumbled, ashamed. Worst of all, last week I watched as a young toddler pulled Noah’s hair while they were playing, and Noah laid there, not moving, and cried “stop” and “hey” and “nooo” as the other mother and I rushed over to help him. It was this, more than anything, that finally jarred me. My attention to what was happening was suddenly pushed from “subconscious” to “conscious.”
I’m going to have to backpedal, I realized. Have I been so intense about not using violence or even violent words that I’ve made him believe he can’t approach me with dark thoughts that are entirely normal? Does he believe he can’t talk to me about them because I react so strongly to hearing him say words like “kill” and “hurt” and “die”? And does he believe he must lie still and take it, waiting for an adult to help, while he’s being hurt? Later that day I explained to him that while it is unacceptable to hurt someone else, using his hands to defend himself (in this case, physically removing his own hair from someone else’s fist), then getting away as quickly as possible to find help (if help is needed) is the right course of action. “I’m not telling you to hurt others, Bubbs,” I reminded him, just to be sure he understood. Then I put on my best Mama Bear voice. “But also don’t let others hurt you!” Had I forgotten to tell him this to begin with? More and more as I thought about it, I realized I haven’t been guiding him into making kind YET WISE choices; I’ve been manipulating and controlling him so that he doesn’t trust himself to make those choices on his own.
How many ways has my tendency to overprotect and control every situation bled over in his little life?
I go back and forth. Children need guidance. Children need autonomy. CONTROL! LET GO! CONTROL! LET GO! “ROGGENDORFF!” I say to myself in the mirror. “GET IT TOGETHER OR YOU’LL FUCK UP YOUR KIDS, YA DOOFUS! GET IN THERE! OOMPH! YEAH!”
The truth is letting Noah be himself is hard. I want to shape this little person, and to some extent that’s my job and my privilege as a parent. But not when shaping becomes smothering and squashing him into the person I think he should be, into some weirdly perfect little parrot. Maybe he’ll get his hands dirty a few times as he learns to figure out “good” and “bad.” Maybe that’s the only way he’ll learn what makes them dirty to begin with. Maybe my job isn’t to keep him from getting his hands dirty, but to help him wash them when he comes home.
Today when he said that, as a good guy, he thought his job was to kill the bad guy, I bit my tongue. (Literally. It hurt.) I always find myself wanting to steer the conversation away from these dark thoughts of his. My go-to for this particular theme is along the lines of “Don’t you think the good guys will turn into bad guys if they try to kill the bad guys? Killing is bad, therefore people who kill are bad?” It’s honest. I truly believe that, so that’s the kind of thing I usually throw out whenever he broaches the subject. But today I just let him talk. I know he’s heard what I’ve said. I know things sink in even when I don’t know they’re sinking in. So I said nothing.
So Noah kept talking. Unsurprisingly, the topic organically switches from death to God and God’s role in our lives fairly often. Part of wrestling with good vs. evil is figuring out the Divine in us. It’s a subject with which most adults I know grapple, too. “If God lives in your heart and you die,” he asked me once, “where does God go?”
YES. THAT SOUND WAS A RECORD SCRATCH. Followed by my pounding heart. Followed by my Hamlet-esque soliloquy entitled “I Don’t Fucking Know! But You’re Three and You Need Answers! But I Don’t Have Any!”
Today he mused further. “How does God live inside you AND all around you?” We chatted back and forth about it a bit, me explaining (again) that God isn’t like a person so God can exist everywhere all at once, and him asking me why God is a spirit, whatever the hell that means. When I was out of answers I remembered what a good friend advised me to say next time Noah pondered the Divine. I also remembered my vow to try to stop controlling his every thought and let him have an original one every so often. So I asked him what HE thought. He said this.
“I think God is like the sun… AND the sky.”
Holy, holy, holy shit.
I think you’re right, Noah, my deep thinker. I think that’s a better metaphor for God than any I’ve ever come up with in the 30 years I’ve been alive. I think I’m going to ask you what you think more often.
And I think you’re gonna be just fine.