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Mel, my wife, was opening the box of taco shells, when Tristan said, “Give me a taco shell.”
We were all at the table, including baby Aspen and Norah, our five-year-old, having tacos.
Mel paused for a moment, placed the shells down, and looked at Tristan straight in the face with her mom look, a piercing, never-wavering stare that all moms have. Sometimes Mel uses the mom stare on me, which I will admit works every time. It’s a power all mothers have. Or at least all the ones I’ve known. My mother had it. And so did my grandmother. When I got married, I assumed I’d escape it, but I was wrong. It followed me. And because I understood the power of the mom look, I understood that Tristan was on his way to being in deep shit.
“Is that how you ask for things?” Mel said.
“May I please have a taco shell?” I asked.
“Yes, you may,” Mel said. “See how easy that is, Tristan.”
“Give me a taco shell,” Tristan repeated.
His soft round face was more urgent this time, and his eyes were determined, but still a little bashful. At his sides were fists. Clearly he was still the stocky buzz-headed little boy in shorts and a school polo he’d been for the past several years, but there was a passion in his eyes that reminded me of being a teen. It reminded me of all the times I looked at my grandmother (who raised me from age 12-18) with determination, with a willingness to fight the man, to break the rules, to prove that I was an independent person with my own values and passions who was above the rules. Basically, it was the irritating look that most teens give when they are being difficult and unmanageable and need a good kick in the ass.
“We say please in this house,” Mel said.
While all this was going on, I’d managed to make myself a taco. I was taking a bite when Mel gave me the Mom stare. (Or perhaps in this case it was the wife stare. It doesn’t matter.) Obviously she wanted me to back her up, and as a father and husband, I will admit that I was a little oblivious as to what was going on. There is something about being hungry after a day at work that makes me shut out a lot of things. I tend to revert to a caveman state that zeros in on nothing but food.
“Dude,” I said, my mouth half full, being a bad example myself. “Just say please. It’s not that much to ask, and then we can all have tacos.”
The strange thing about all this was the fact that Tristan has always been a very polite kid. And this really wasn’t a battle worth fighting. But never the less, he was going to fight it, and as he stuck in his heels, I realized that this was my future. This wasn’t the first time he’d thrown a preteen fit over something stupid. A week earlier he got worked up because I asked him to hang up his bath towel. He ended up running into his room and slamming the door. And when I thought back on that moment, and combined it with what was happening at dinner, I realized that this was the attitude he was going to use when arguing with us over why he should or shouldn’t be in by a particular time, or why this or that person might be a bad influence. With this whole taco fight, I realized that we were slowly moving into a new stage of parenting… the preteen.
“Give me a stupid taco shell,” he said. His face was red now, and his eyes were starting to water up. He got off his chair, walked around the table, and tried to grab one of the shells from Mel. In retaliation, Mel held the taco shells up over her head.
“Just say please,” she said. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
“Really,” I said. “We just want you to grow up and be polite. I’m not raising a family of jerks. It’s really important to say please. I don’t understand why you’re fighting us this hard.”
Tristan started to climb up Mel’s arm, and she couldn’t help but smile at his determination. She reached over and handed me the taco shells, and when I think back on that, it feels like we were playing a game of keep away. It feels like we were trying to aggravate him. Suddenly we were bullies. And although he was the one throwing the fit, I started to wonder if we were as bad as him, fighting over something that isn’t worth it. Basically, we were trying to prove our dominance. All of it seemed so primal. Tristan was trying to question our authority by fighting over saying please, and we were trying to prove to him that his parents were still the bosses. It was all very irritating, especially when I thought about the fact that my taco was getting cold.
I held the taco shells out of his reach and asked him one more time to say please, but rather than give in, he ran into his room and slammed the door.
Mel and I finished our dinner while saying things like, “what’s the deal with him” or “so this is what we have to look forward to.”
After I finished eating, I went into his room. Tristan was on his stomach, elbows down, head cradled in his palms, facing the window.
I told him how being polite was an important life skill. I asked him if he always said please to his schoolteacher, and he said he did.
“So why wouldn’t you say it to Mom?”
He shrugged. “I just didn’t want to,” he said.
Eventually, I asked him if he wanted to be alone, he said he did. About an hour later, he came out of his room, acting normal.
Usually I try to give my essays a resolve, but with this situation, I’m really at a loss on how to handle the Jekyll and Hyde nature of a preteen. This is a new stage for us as parents. I have to assume that it’s only going to get worse. I once heard a story on NPR about how kids have to go through a phase where they hate their parents. If they didn’t, they’d never leave home. And while I have to assume that is true, I’m really not looking forward to it.
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