Last Wednesday I came down to the kitchen to find my 9-year-old showered and dressed for school, eating a bowl of cereal, and watching SportsCentre.
Normally I would find this adorable, but that particular morning I was irritated with him for having dropped his wet towel on the floor and for not having cleaned up his dishes from the night before. For, like, the millionth time.
These are also the kinds of things he asks me not to remind him about because, when I do, he insists that he was "just about to take care of it," and that my reminding him makes him feel like I don't think he's capable of remembering on his own.
So while I'm biting my tongue about these domestic transgressions-for, like, the millionth time-I notice he's dressed for school in the kind of elastic-waist nylon shorts that, in our household, are restricted to athletic activities and weekends.
"Good morning," I said, flatly. "Are you wearing athletic clothes?"
Before he could get his answer out, I added: "And is that your wet towel on the floor upstairs? And your dish from last night on the counter?"
Let me say here that perhaps I could have chosen a better way to start off the morning than by listing the ways in which I was disappointed with him. But I was tired of pretending I didn't notice the things he had or hadn't done, of being forced into the position of the nagging mum.
He, however, was apparently tired of following my rules, of being forced into the position of dutiful son, of having his fashion choices questioned. Some kids have sensitivity issues with things like buttons and zippers, but this was purely about swagger-and, evidently, it was the last straw for my style-minded, sports-focused fourth grader.
"Mum!" he snapped. "Just stop! I can't be perfect all the time. Sometimes you're just. . . over the top!" he growled at me.
Stunned, I listened as he launched into all the ways he was frustrated with me: He's the only one of his friends whose parents don't allow athletic clothes for school. He's expected to always do all of his dishes.
He's not allowed to go to sleep-away camp. (That last one came out of left field, I thought, until he explained that everyone at his lunch table the day before, even the kid with the other overprotective mum, had been talking about what a great time they'd had at this sleep-away camp together-the one that he'd been asking to go to but that I wasn't ready for just yet.) My demands on him, he proclaimed, were unreasonable.
Now, you might you agree with him. Maybe you think my no-athletic-clothes-to-school rule is unreasonable, too. But I bet you also have one of those rules in your household-the one that your kid feels unfairly sets him apart from his friends.
Maybe it's the one that restricts video games, or sleepovers, or watching a certain show. But in my particular kitchen on this particular morning, the standoff was going to be about sartorial regulations.
"OK," I said, backing off. "I don't want to start the morning off with a fight. You know the right thing to do here, and I trust that you'll do it on your own." In a bit of a huff, I walked back upstairs and put myself in time out.
We have another rule in our family: If the rules don't seem fair to you, you can advocate change. Tell me how you feel, make your case, convince me to amend our family constitution. Breaking the rules and hoping no one notices-or asking for forgiveness later-will not go over nearly as well.
To his credit, before my boy left for school he came upstairs to kiss me goodbye and apologise for the way he'd talked to me earlier, this time wearing mum-approved shorts.
But all day long I thought about what he'd said: How can I know when to hold my ground and when to gracefully concede?
I'd been in his shoes before. I painfully recalled being the only kid at a fifth-grade birthday party who wasn't allowed to see "Flashdance," how embarrassed I was to be the reason none of the kids could see it and the host had to pick a different movie (although I suspect that many of the other parents were grateful to my mum for putting her foot down on that one).
I cringed at how, in eighth grade, I would sneak blue eyeliner into my backpack to put on once I was out of the house because I was the only one of my friends whose parents didn't allow them to wear makeup. I would rather disregard my parents' unreasonable standards than disappoint my friends' social expectations.
I didn't want that to be my son. If he was going to wear athletic shorts-or blue eyeliner-I wanted him to know he could come clean with me.
After he came home from school that day, I asked him to plead his case. "I want to wear athletic clothes to school because I want to be comfortable when I play sports at recess," he explained.
This was a good point, I had to admit; the boy needed to dress for both math class and soccer matches. "By the time I'm in middle school, I won't have recess anymore and it won't matter. And then I will always wear nice clothes. But for now, I just want to feel normal. I don't want to be known as the different one."
I asked him what he thought was reasonable for him to be able to do, and agreed that he could wear athletic clothes to school as long as they were clean and they matched.
He also wanted to could take the bus home from school and walk to the house by himself-no argument here. And while I wouldn't budge on the dishes and the wet towels, I promised that I'd revisit the possibility of sleep-away camp again in the spring.
When I really listened to him, I heard that what my very capable 9-year-old had been trying to say to me was that his dad and I had given him the guidance he needed to develop the right skills and behaviour on his own; now we just had to sit back and let him use them.
The next day, he came down for school again dressed in athletic clothes and I didn't say a word. But by Friday, he had picked out another outfit of his own creation: a checked button-down shirt with a pair of khaki shorts and these very cool, bright orange sneakers. I have to say, he looked kind of awesome.
The Washington Post