Eli, at the dinner table, asked us if there were any “explicit lessons” we had taught him. He couldn’t think of any.
“Uh, what do you mean?” I asked.
He gave an example: “My friend’s parents taught him you should always walk a girl to the door.”
Hmm. Well, that is not anything I or Jimmy had ever thought to make explicit. I do recall, from my own youth, that my parents thought this was a good thing: boys should make sure girls get home safely — and that means to the front door, and into it. (And who makes sure that boys get home safely?) Yet, I have failed to pass this along.
“What about a message like ‘Be kind’?” I suggested.
Apparently, that doesn’t count.
“Turn off the lights when you leave a room?”
“Brush your teeth? Get a good night’s sleep?”
No and no.
Eli did not seem to mind that we couldn’t come up with anything. “Basically, I think I know a lot of stuff and you didn’t have to teach it to me.” He said something like this, in so many words, and added that he was able to think through, on his own, a lot of situations and dilemmas he encountered.
Wonderful, his mind is at ease. However, mine has not been. I’ve been mentally backtracking through Eli’s 17 years on the planet (and Lydia’s 13 and Grace’s 9), looking for moments when I have communicated an explicit lesson or made a parental speech.
I have thought of only four items for what must be a rather skimpy guide to life. Here they are.
1. Wear what you want, as long as it’s clean, mended, and weather appropriate.
Although all three kids have, to some degree, normed themselves into styles that more or less fit their personalities and peer groups, in their younger days, there was a LOT of sartorial experimentation. Eli spent some time going to elementary school dressed up in full astronaut gear (“To infinity, and beyond!”). When he was even younger, he liked to wear his clothes snugly, one size too small, and even experimented with wearing a pair of shrunken purple woolen tights, cast off by me. He liked the fit. The girls were wearing skirts over pants even before that look hit your local Urban Outfitters store, and often half of a Halloween costume (a cape, a hat) became a temporary staple. The need for the explicit teaching about clothing arose when Lydia wanted to wear to preschool, in the middle of winter, a pink satin camisole from a majorette costume. She balked, but I insisted on weather appropriateness, and added “clean” and “mended” while I had her ear. I must say, the fights in our house over clothing have been more about the buying of them than the wearing of them. “No, I will not pay $115 for a pair of Levi’s!” “Mom, please!”
2. When you go to your friends’ houses, say hello to the parents, clean up after yourself, and offer your thanks for the visit and any food you were served.
I don’t know what it is about fifth grade, but in that year children often go from being friendly and frisky with adults to being sort of aversive. An adult comes in the room, and it’s as if a signal in the 10-year-old brain turns off the attention switch, rendering the adult invisible. It’s not so much that they look away or pointedly ignore the mother who is standing there, smiling like a fool, in the kitchen; it’s that they don’t recognize her presence. She does not exist, even though she has just supplied the table with popcorn and lemonade and is now sweeping it up. When this has happened in my house, I have deliberately and even pushily addressed the children: “Hi, Karen. How’s it going, Tommy. Who wants more?” I don’t embarrass them or force them to answer awkward questions, like “How’s school?” However, we must all learn to acknowledge each other. Privately, I have discussed this with Eli and Lydia. (Grace’s friends are, for the time being, still interested in me.) I have promised not to embarrass their friends, but I have exhorted them to mention this to the Karens and Tommys who walk in our door. Eli, characteristically, has done this openly and with humor: when he was younger, he would come in the door with his fellow loiterers and say, “Guys, say hi to my mom. She likes it,” and then they would comply. Lydia, more socially subtle, has somehow made this happen in tandem with my continued and gentle prodding of her friends. Good — perhaps I can change the world with this lesson, one pre-teen at a time.
3. You will know you are ready for sex when you are as interested in giving pleasure to the other person as you are in getting it.
Maybe at some point I will be moved to write an entire post about sex and my ideas for how we talk to children about it (and even how we might talk to each other). However, today I see there is snow outside to be shoveled and breakfast still to be made, and that topic wait for a more leisurely morning. For the moment, let’s go back to middle school: When Eli was about 12 years old, he asked us, as we were driving to the now-defunct Red Sauce, a restaurant in Newton, with Grace and Lydia also in the car: “Mom and Dad, have you guys ever heard of blow jobs?” Jimmy and I, in the front seats, looked at each other, rather wide-eyed. “Yes,” we answered tentatively and not quite in unison. Eli shouted, “Woo hoo! Now I know it’s true. Matt told me he had heard about them, and we didn’t quite believe it. I can tell him that they do exist.” We smiled. One of the girls asked, “What’s that?” I mentally scrambled. “It has something to do with sex, and it’s not information you need to have now as a child. Eli, we’ll talk about it later in private. Lydia and Grace, we’ll come back to it when you’re older.” Everyone seemed temporarily satisfied; Eli’s demeanor I would describe as glowing with new knowledge.
Whether it was that night or a week later, I came back to the question and the topic with Eli, in private. I had been thinking about Eli, on the verge of sexuality, but also about the partners he would have someday, and wanting both that he would have good experiences himself, but also that he would be considerate of and generous to another person. Maybe this is just the girl in me, thinking about how often there can be imbalances of both power and pleasure in sexual and romantic relationships, especially among teenagers and young adults and probably among adult adults too. I started the conversation with the message, “While I do not think you are ready, at twelve, for sex, someday you will be. Let me tell you what I think about readiness.” And during the long, illuminating conversation with Eli — he is so good at these — I managed to frame my ideas about reciprocity around pleasure and thoughtfulness. It’s normal to want to experience these sexual gifts from another person; just make sure, before you dive into something, that you are as interested in that person’s body and pleasure as you are your own.
4. Crack an egg on the countertop, not on the edge of the bowl.
Okay, this is a lesson I did learn from my mother. I have taught my children to crack eggs this way, and apparently I have taught the girls in Grace’s Brownie troop the same method when we have cooked together. One of the Brownie mothers recently told me of watching her little daughter crack eggs, on the countertop and not on the mixing bowl’s edge, and hearing, “Jane taught me.” Why this way? You’ll get less shattering of the shell if you crack it on the flat surface and fewer or no eggshell shards in the bowl.
Those are all I have to pass along. Perhaps they will help my children make their way in the world, stay warm and look cool, find love, and eat.