Sunday, April 18, 2010

126 days to Bar Mitzvah: please clean your room

A few years from now, our Jawa will be sitting in the guidance counselor's office, talking about his college options; or he'll be at a party, long past the decision of whether to partake or not. Maybe he'll be at Denny's at three in the morning, long after the dance has ended, talking with a girl who may or may not eventually become the first great love of his life.

Wherever he is, the topic will be the same. "My dad," he'll say, "is always on my case."

At no point in the past 12-plus years did I gather myself, consider my options and say, "You know, I think I'll be the kind of dad who's always nagging his son to do things." It's just worked out that way so far. Rare is the day I can get through without something he's done -- or, more likely, hasn't done -- rubbing me the wrong way.

It's almost always about cleaning his room, or whatever other surface he has descended on, destroyed, and then moved on with nary a second thought. He is like a Category 5 tornado in that way, random, unpredictable and comprehensive in the damage he causes. The yoke I wear is trying to live with this (hopefully temporary) personality trait without becoming a carichature.

Where do I go from here, for example? Is the next step hounding him about having no direction in life? I would need to remove all mirrors from the house before I could do that with a clear conscience. I may as well scold him for his pre-adolescent mustache, so hypocritical would that be.

One way to rationalize my behavior is to assume that I'm doing a service for him, providing an easy target at which to direct his teenage angst. "My dad, man," he can say. "I'll never be what he wants."

It's funny how that particular cliche is equal parts overwrought and inaccurate. Speaking only for myself, I haven't really thought about what I would "want" him to be. It takes most of each day to get a handle on what he is; who has time to postulate about what he "should" be?

But this cleaning the room thing; it's a problem.

And of course, the worst part is that I know I didn't care about keeping my stuff clean until I was 18 and living in a dorm room. The only reason I picked up the slack there was because there simply was no place to hide. You leave your dorm room bed unmade, you're dealing with an unmade bed all day. You leave your teenage bed unmade, you can simply close your bedroom door, leaving you with -- in our case -- five other rooms to mess up.

I have a word of advice to anyone out there with children younger than the Jawa: don't let your child know how important any single thing is to you. Say you intimate that their tendancy to throw everything in their backpack around the room is an obvious nose-thumbing toward their primary authority figure (their father)? Having spent most of your recent time in the world of adults, you might assume that the logical response would be for the child to think, "I don't want to give the impressiont that, by blatently ignoring my father's wishes, I am purposely stating that I will not do what he wants. I'd better complete the simple, somewhat tedious task of cleaning my room, if only to avoid that erroneous perception."

If you are a wise and rational adult, you will know that your child does not entertain these thoughts, that he has far more interesting things to consider -- like creating remote-controlled stop lights on his laptop, which he can then change from green to yellow to red using his iPod touch, which is pretty darn impressive if you ask me but does not in any way make his refusal to pick up the freaking contents of his binder that have been strewn about his room for three days any less infuriating.

But there is a risk. You cannot simply run your home like a selectively benevolent dictatorship without running into negative consequences. If you are lucky, you'll be too busy to notice. If you're me, you have plenty of bandwidth, and thus can hone in , with laser-sharp focus, on the fact that your child has begun treating your childless next-door neighbor like the cool father he never had.

Not that I blame him. Too much of our recent interaction has consisted of me telling him, in strongly-worded terms, to clean something up. No feat is great enough to distract me. That stop light thing was impressive, but it sidelined me for less than a minute. "That's really cool," I said. "Now when were you planning to pick up the K'Nex downstiars?"

This morning I was on him about five minutes after I woke up. I'm not kidding. That pile of papers on his bedroom floor just struck me the wrong way. I didn't say anything direct, but he got the message. Enough so that when I returned from work four hours later, I got a quick glance, followed by a retreat into the basement (which, I might add, was a complete disaster when I went down there later. Did I say anything? No.).

Today, the entire block convened on our front stairs to plan for our May 22 annual block party. The Jawa is the only minor on the "games committee," chaired by our childless neighbor, the Poet With the 40-inch Leap." That Poet, man, he is into these games. Enough so that he has replaced his usual faint sheen of cynicism with childlike enthusiasm -- and a welcoming interest in the Jawa's contributions, minus any browbeating or strong suggestions that he pick up those clothes he threw in the middle of his bedroom floor.

Gatherings on our front steps are always a good time, even when you feel the edges of your consciousness are telling you something slightly disturbing. Not as acute as Obi Wan's sudden Alderaan-obliteration-fueled headache, but more than stubbing your toe on the baseboards. Of course, parenting (as a verb) is all about give-and-take. You try to let out enough rope to allow for freedom without inviting danger. And you do your best to not be threatened by brief infatuations with substitute father figures, even when you sort of feel you deserve whatever you've got coming.

What's amazing is the elasticity of the father-son bond. He'll put up with my nagging, maybe explode or apply his time-honored method of appearing groggy and confused, as if after a long and trying day he's wandered into an unusual situation and hasn't had a chance to get his mind around it yet.

But just now, on his way into bed, he took three separate trips out to the living room to ask and tell me stuff: "What does xenophobia mean?" "I found four songs from 'Demon Days' on my hard drive!" "If a person never used toothpaste, could they still have good teeth by flossing and using mouthwash?"

Life, I like to remind myself, is much more complicated than anyone told us it would be.


Butter Goats said...

Yeah, but he didn't call the Poet from a phone booth when he was 3.

The Hammer said...

There's a reason why you named me The Hammer. Take everything he cares about away and let him earn it back, one cleanup at a time. Repeat as necessary. Gentler option: ask him what technique would work for him and make him sign a contract. Whose son will end up in therapy - yours or mine (probably mine)?