Of Dogs and ‘Tweens
Here is a funny story:
We all get home one evening after a day out and Stacey notices that our dog’s water dish is full of dirty water. She tells Oscar to take care of Rocket’s water.
Without dumping out the dirty water, Oscar simply fills Rocket’s dish with more water. Stacey sees the scum and dirt still in the bowl and calls Oscar over and says, “I meant for you to empty his water dish and give him clean water. This is still dirty—would you drink that water?
Without a hint of sarcasm or attitude, in a sweet, rational voice, Oscar says, “No, but I wouldn’t lick myself or smell people’s bottoms, either.”
I observe all this, standing in the kitchen, and when I hear Oscar’s retort, I immediately turn and fast-walk to the bedroom and shut the door before I bust out laughing.
He is a sweet kid—he tries really hard to be good, and he’s smart and a hard worker. He is getting older—he’ll be in sixth grade in the fall—and his sense of humor is developing as he matures.
Oscar was an only child for five years before Simon and Lucy came along, so he has come to relate to us in an informal way. We make it clear he is not a peer to us, but we have always conversationally engaged him in family decisions and even in our discipline with him.
One consequence of this history is that when he is tired or hungry—and thereby extra sensitive—any disagreement turns into a tearful discussion that often circles over the same territory without getting anywhere.
Stacey, as an only child herself, has good patience with Oscar in moments like this—she listens to him and gently keeps to the boundaries of a given decision. I grew up with two sisters, and when a decision was made in my family, there was no discussion about it. I’m much more prone to laying down the law and letting him pout.
The problem with this approach is that it distances me from him over time. I realize that he needs to feel heard when he has a gripe or disagreement. Until recently, I struggled with keeping parental authority intact while still engaging him with empathy. Two things have helped me walk this line:
First, in a moment of complete and utter grace, it dawned on me that complaining and sharing feelings are two different things. Oscar usually has hurt feelings because he has plans or needs that he thinks we’ve trampled and/or crushed. It is one thing to complain that we deliberately plan his demise, and another for him to express feelings of frustration and disappointment when we change plans for some reason.
I’ve learned that when he says “always” or “never,” he is probably complaining. In moments like this I try to coach him to identify his feelings and share those instead. I tell him that I will listen to his feelings, but not his complaints. It has worked recently—our conversations have not resolved things to his liking, but he seems more at ease knowing that he has been heard.
The second key has been focusing on deliberately building our relationship with other activities during the day that make a connection between us. For example, once, when I took him out fishing, I subsequently had a great week with him. The time together made him feel like our father/son relationship was strong and close, and that puts a different context on conflicts that may come up.
I have to praise his wit, though—he has a quick sense of humor and likes to make people laugh. It is a privilege to watch him grow up and I’m proud to be his father.