Heather rolled out of bed, carrying Asher with her, who was still sleepy and clung to her. It was dark outside. Too early to get up. Phoenix lay in bed with me. Both of our boys had snuck into the queen-sized mattress in the early morning, and the four of us had crammed there together for a few hours– like balancing four cubes of cheese on a small cracker. Finally, Heather gave up on the notion of sleeping in, leaving the two of us behind. I rolled to my side facing Phoenix, who is four. I rubbed his back and his hair.
“I’m so proud of you Phoenix,” I told him.
“Why is that, dada?”
I smiled at his question. In a way, he was fishing for compliments, and in a way, it was an opportunity for me to list the way in which I appreciated my boy.
“Because you’re smart.”
“And so kind.”
I rubbed his hair with each compliment.
“What else?” he asked.
I laughed. I’m sure he loved to hear all the ways I was proud of him, but I had listed three qualities, and he still wanted more.
“What do you mean, what else?” I asked, even though I knew what he wanted.
“Why else are you proud of me?”
“You’re funny,” I said.
We both smiled.
“And sweet,” I finished.
Just around the time Asher was born — Phoenix was around two and a half — Heather and I watched the movie “The Help.” There’s a striking scene in the movie when one of the black maids/nannies looks into the eyes of a white little girl, whom she’s practically raising, and says to her: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
It’s such a beautiful moment of an adult woman who lacks education and equal standing in society who invests herself in reassuring and encouraging a little girl whose mother is neglectful and harsh.
After watching that movie, I started telling three things to Phoenix each night before bed:
“You are strong. You are resilient. You are kind.”
In the movie, the nanny starts with “kind” — I think because she needs to stress the primary importance of kindness in such an unkind world — but for Phoenix, I ended with “kind.” Kindness comes easily to him, so I want him to grow to be strong and resilient first, in order to prepare against the unkindness of others in this world.
Yet, now, as we lay in bed together, I had told him I was proud of his gentleness, his smarts and his kindness.
I didn’t compliment him on the other two qualities: He is not strong, and he’s not very resilient. At least, not yet. He becomes easily overwhelmed, and often when he is frustrated, he shuts down and is unable to process new information until he’s had a chance to calm down.
Sometimes, I yell at him because I want him to be tougher. I remember being such a wimp growing up, all the way through high school. I would cry easily at the insults of others. Even as a teenager, I was a big crybaby, sulking when others had offended me or hurt me emotionally. In some ways, I’ve had to overcompensate for my inner tenderness with a hard demeanor. A scabby shell. Oftentimes, when people meet me they say their first impression of me is that I’m too serious. Toward others, I’m brash and impatient.
In a way, that’s my effort in trying to toughen him up.
I’m harsh with him in hope that he might not be so soft as me. Words touch his flesh like he has no skin.
I have no skin.
When he cries, his lower lip pushes out so far, you could hang a bucket from it. Heather calls it his bucket lip. Sometimes, it’s over a cartoon we shut off because it’s already twenty minutes past his bed time. Sometimes, it’s my stern voice when I tell him he needs to respect his mommy and listen to her. Other times it’s because I just want him to be more resilient, to not let little things implode his world.
“Get over it!” I’ve shouted at him.
But his strength and resilience is much different from what I try to force upon him.
The other day, he and Asher were climbing over everything at my in-laws’ living room while I was putzing on my phone, ignoring their need to play. They climbed over the couch. The dogs. The arm rest. The little cube ottoman with the lid that might fall through if they both stand on top of it. The lamp stand where I keep the coffee next to me, almost spilling it right over the edge.
“Will you two stop? You’re bugging the heck out of me.”
“But I just wan –” his winy voice started.
“What? What do you want?”
“I just want my drink,” he said, pointing at the bright plastic cup with the sealed lid.
“Here. Take it. Just drink and be quiet.”
He took it, and I expected him to cry, to throw down the cup or pout in a way that makes me feel both miserable and embittered.
Instead, he took the cup and sat right next to me on the couch. He took my hand and put it on his lap, while drinking the cup with his other hand. I patted his leg, and squeezed his little hand in mine.
He didn’t say anything. He just watched the television, and drank like I wanted him to.
His tenderness penetrated through my skin. It both shamed me and warmed me. And it made me realize how wrong I am about my son.
You are strong, Phoenix.
You are resilient.
And you are very kind.