I spend a lot of time pondering the big questions of parenthood, the intriguing philosophical problems on which Charlie's future emotional well-being surely hinges. Questions like, "Do I wash this crib sheet in cold (nosebleed) or hot (overflowing diaper so aggressively toxic that my DNA mutates even further just remembering the moment of discovery)?"
Once I've resolved those matters, I move on to consider less complicated issues. The one that's currently on my mind is this: How far does one dare to go in trying to civilize other people's children?
Two or three times a week, I take Charlie to the library to play. To overcome my innate discomfort among groups of women who've already forged alliances, I pretend I'm an anthropologist — a fidgety anthropologist who needs a haircut, smiles too much, and makes too-hearty overtures to other mothers when none are wanted, to be sure, but, look, I'm trying here, okay?
I love to watch Charlie negotiate with the other children. When a child is at a similar stage of development, it's gone very smoothly; they trample each other good-naturedly and roughly yank each other's toys away with nary a squawk of discontent. But when a kid is older, sometimes there's trouble.
A few days ago Charlie was leaning against the edge of the train table, happily softening up Thomas the Tank Engine for future digestion by marinating him in saliva. Charlie can't yet stand on his own, so he couldn't draw back from the table to let other children pass. I stood nearby, assuming my exquisite diplomacy would be needed sooner or later, and indeed it was when a girl of about four wanted to push her train past where Charlie stood.
(It is not absolutely crucial to the story that you know that when such conflicts arise, it is invariably with a girl, usually pale with violet shadows under her eyes, a mulish look on her thin face, and the utter absence of a soul visible in her every dull blink. But, Jesus, they grow 'em wan here, and I had to tell someone.)
The girl looked at Charlie happily laving his train, then turned her empty stare to me. "Make him move," she said.
Make. Him. Move.
I looked around for her mother, expecting her to trot purposefully over and remind her daughter in the appropriate tone of lighthearted firmness, while giving me an apologetic roll of her eyes, "Now, Gonorrhea, what word do we use when we ask for something?" Her mother, however, was deeply absorbed in conversation with another mother whose own pallid offspring was busy removing and tasting the pants of every wooden doll in the dollhouse.
So I assumed my own light tone, smiled as unthreateningly as I know how, and explained to the girl, "It's friendly to say please," while hauling Charlie a few feet back from the table.
I was kind. I was not harsh. I even did as she demanded while suggesting a nicer way to ask. And yet by saying it at all, I feel I broke some kind of unwritten code against correcting another person's child.
It's dicey. If I'd known the child and her mother, if I socialized with them frequently, I could have broached the subject in the context of wanting Charlie to understand that "please" and "thank you" are mandatory. If Charlie were older and understood what was happening, I could have offered alternate wording to the girl under the guise of asking for his cooperation. As it was, I was sort of stuck. Do I violate the tribal taboo or do I let a dead-eyed preschooler tell me what to do?
Because I am not so mature myself, "You're not the boss of me" won out.
And here's what's worse: I carefully said it in a soft enough voice that her mother wouldn't hear. I'm kind of a pussy that way.
My friend B., who is exquisitely polite herself, was complaining the other day about an ill-mannered homunculus of her acquaintance. "I know," she said, "that children don't have to be savages. My friend L. is like the Great fucking Santini of manners, and her five-year-old could work for the State Department. So there must be a way to do it."
"It's called a taser, B.," I informed her.
Paul's sister and her children were visiting us a few years ago. At lunch one day, the older teenage boy was taunting the younger, as was his habit. I dislike that kind of bickering, but, since I was aware that this was their way and that it was sanctioned by their mother, I ignored it as best I could. That is, until the older kid said to the younger, in a tone of perfect pubescent contempt, "R., you're so gay."
And then I heard myself say quietly, "I don't ever want to hear you say such a thing again."
The older kid turned bright red. After an uncomfortable silence, the subject was laboriously changed and I heard no more about it until that evening, when Paul's sister told me, "I was surprised that you said that to S."
"Well, I was surprised that he said that to R.," I answered.
"I think he was embarrassed," she said.
I did not say, "Good. He should have been." But I thought it, deep down inside where my nastier impulses reside.
I couldn't let his remark go unchallenged. I couldn't let him think it was okay. I knew his mother wouldn't correct him, so before I thought through it, I did. If I'd seriously wanted to help him understand why he was wrong, I'd have gone about it differently. The urge to improve a young mind wasn't what spurred me. My refusal to listen to that kind of ugliness in my own home was.
Was it wrong for me to speak to him as I did? Sometimes I think it was, because I can't honestly justify humiliating a kid (and, believe me, I can generally rationalize just about anything). At other times I've thought, Well, at least I got his attention. Or I've told myself that someone needed to say something, anything, and the mode mattered less than the meaning. Or I've righteously assured myself that if he's going to be an ass, he needs to be aware that sensitive, thinking, decent, God-fearing, red-blooded Americans — sorry, got a little carried away there — are going to take issue, and he would do well to consider the consequences before he opens his arrogant teenaged trap.
But then I try to decide whether it was wrong for me to say something to begin with, manner notwithstanding. Was I correcting someone else's child in his mother's presence, or was I conversing with a statutory adult? And I conclude that it doesn't matter; "wrong" or not, no matter who said it, I just couldn't let it pass.
And then, when I've exhausted myself by revisiting and overthinking something that happened three years ago, I exact my revenge by thinking uncharitable thoughts about his deplorable personal hygiene.
I'm not so mature, remember?
Maybe I place too much importance on manners. I've been accused of that before, of holding myself aloof that way, of keeping people at a distance with too many pleases and thank-yous. (Of course, those accusations came mainly from my caveman of a college boyfriend, who a) insisted on sharing at Chinese restaurants, and then, once the rest of the party had asked for innocuous, accessible dishes, would invariably order moo goo gai pig's anus; and b) told my mother he didn't think I was funny, so make of that what you will. God knows I do, every chance I get.)
It is convenient to have a southern upbringing to blame. Raised on "no, ma'am" and "yes, sir," I might not always be considerate in a meaningful, substantial way, but I can always be counted on to use the proper stationery for a note of condolence. And isn't that what's really important, after all?
I have no idea how I'll feel when inevitably someone takes it upon herself to correct Charlie's manners. I'd like to believe I'll take it in stride, secure in the way we're raising him, but then I'd also like to believe he'll have only minor lapses — "Do you need a time out?" "No." "No what?" "No, thank you."
Clearly I'm the one who needs to be tasered.