My son Nick is nine going on nineteen. He wants rights to which he isn’t entitled and for which he isn’t ready—just like every other nine year old on the planet. Unlike every other nine year old, however, Nick is what the parenting literature calls a strong-willed aggressive negotiator. These rare specimens of homo sapiens offspring have amazing powers of persuasion. They dazzle their parents with logic and double-speak and persistent questioning. When Nick wants something—information, permission, a toy—he keeps talking about it, like a pit bull that won’t let go of its prey, gnawing at the hapless victim until he gets what he wants.
We hope Nick uses his powers for good and not evil when he grows up. If he goes over to the dark side, he’ll make Darth Vader look like H.R. Pufnstuff.
You think I'm joking, don't you?
Take movies and television, for instance. Nick is constantly pushing the limits, trying to negotiate watching movies and shows that are not appropriate for his age or sensitive nature. Nick saw the box for Child’s Play at Best Buy. He asked George about it, and when George briefly explained that it was a horror movie and not appropriate for children, despite the title, Nick relentlessly pestered him to describe the movie.
Mind you, George went through military survival training and mastered all sorts of techniques to resist enemy interrogation, but under the relentless barrage of questions from his nine-year-old son, George finally caved and told him about the psychopathic, knife-wielding doll.
Later that day, Nick and I had the following conversation:
Nick: I know the difference between pretend and reality. I think I could watch Child’s Play.
Me: Nick, I won’t watch Child’s Play. Movies like that are gross and teach people that violence is funny or for entertainment. They teach people not to care about other people’s suffering.
Nick: What do you mean?
Me: Kids who see lots of violence on TV and in movies and games don’t care about real-life violence. One kid who watched movies like that drove past a terrible car accident with his mother. A woman was dead, and when he saw her body, he smiled and said, “Cool!” It was not cool. It was sad and horrible.
Nick: Well, Dad watches Saving Private Ryan.
Me: Saving Private Ryan is violent in a different way. It doesn’t glorify violence or death. It shows how horrible war is. No one would laugh or feel entertained at the violence in that movie. We won’t let you watch it until you are grown up and make the choice for yourself.
Nick: Well, I want to watch Child’s Play.
Me: When you grow up, you can make a choice about that, too.
Nick: I can’t wait to grow up. Really, Mom, I know I could handle that movie. Really.
Me: This discussion is over.
Nick: But, Mom….
Me: Let it go.
If I had let him, Nick would have kept this conversation going all afternoon. “Let it go” is a useful—and oft-repeated—phrase in our parenting repertoire.
That night, a few minutes after George and I put the boys to bed, Nick called for me to come upstairs.
Nick: You know, Mom, how Dad told me about the movie Child’s Play with the doll that kills people? Well, I keep thinking about that, and it’s scaring me. I can’t sleep. What do I do?
Me: Nick, it’s totally impossible for a doll to kill people. You need to think happy thoughts instead. Think about Pokemon or our trip to the zoo.
Nick: I can’t. The doll keeps coming into my mind. I don’t want it there!
Me: Would it help if we left the hall light on?
Nick [relieved]: Yes!
Isn’t it amazing how light scares away imaginary psychotic toys?
Sexual content is another sensitive subject. Nick still views girls as either platonic chums or cootie colonies, for which I am grateful. Sexual innuendo floats over Nick’s head for the time being, and he’s never asked anything about sex, other than questions about anatomical differences between boys and girls.
While walking with Nick and Jack to the pool recently, however, Nick sprang at me with this alarming topic:
Nick: Mom, guess what.
Nick: You know Wanda Sykes, the one in Over the Hedge? She’s in a commercial and, she says, “When you say, ‘That’s so gay,’ do you realize what you say? Knock it off.” In a commercial. What does “gay” mean, Mom?
Me [wondering where he saw this commercial and how he remembered the wording so perfectly when he cannot remember the sum of 8 plus 9]: Well, gay used to mean "happy." But these days it means something inappropriate for nine-year-olds.
Nick: At school, people use it to mean weird or strange or something, but I don’t think that can be right. I think they just mean geeky.
Me: You’re right; it doesn’t mean weird or strange.
Nick [sighing]: I wish I knew what it DOES mean.
Me: We’ll have this discussion another time.
Nick: When I’m ten?
Me: Let it go.
I know we need to have this conversation—and soon—but he sprang it on me so unexpectedly. My procedure for these ambushes is to play for time so I don’t say too much or the wrong thing.
Generally speaking, birds-and-bees talk doesn’t disturb me at all. I believe a matter-of-fact, sensible, and minimalist approach is best. When Nick was three and potty-training, I walked into the family room to find him exploring his privates.
Nick [in complete panic]: Mom, I have rocks in me!
Me: They are not rocks; they are t*sticles.
Nick: But I don’t want them! Take them out!
Me: No, you need them. Daddy has them, too. They make you a boy.
Nick: Are you sure?
Nick [still not entirely convinced]: Okay.
I deserve an award for not laughing through this exchange, don’t you think? The beauty of my response is how few words I used. Despite being loquacious by nature, I keep this stuff simple. But for some reason, when Nick threw the gay question at me, all I could think of were too many words. I have had a few days to edit myself, and next time the subject comes up, I’ll be prepared.
I just hope I can be as cool when he’s emitting body odor and sprouting hair in places currently bare and we have the conversation about keeping his manhood in his pants.
Where the hell is that instruction manual?