The other night, I squeezed myself into a child-sized chair in an elementary-school library at the annual parent meeting for my 13-year-old’s Boy Scout troop. After the run-through of the agenda’s items (fund raising chief among them – anyone want popcorn?), the woman running the meeting – one of our excellent adult leaders and the mother of a teen in the troop – said this, and I paraphrase: “Listen, if you notice any of us speaking to your boys about behavior or responsibility, just know that we’re trying to help them. Sometimes it’s better coming from someone other than mom or dad.”
Jeez, I thought, have any the other parents complained that their sons were spoken to sideways? I guess it’s possible, but if so, it sure wouldn’t have come from me. I’ve often noted our scout master’s correction of boys who misspeak, even in a mild way, to or among their fellow scouts. The lines the leaders draw, all true to the Boy Scout code of ethical, responsible, friendly, helpful and kind behavior, are a blessing to me. I’ve thought, on more than one occasion, “You go ahead and help me shoulder that part of the raising of my boy to adulthood.” Because my husband and I, as hard as we work? We can’t do this alone.
When that near-teen of whom I speak, the Boy Scout with the man-size sneakers that block my side door, was 6 weeks old, I started looking for a nanny to care for him when I returned to work. After looking at some ads and making some calls, I headed out in the stinging cold of a December night to meet Maggie, the baby strapped to my chest and wrapped in a bunting and blanket. Of course he’d fallen peacefully asleep before I even reached our apartment building’s door. I say of course because he’d spent the whole of the day screaming his head off (when he wasn’t ravenously slurping up my milk). He was a terrible baby. Evil. A shape-shifter. Yes, I was slightly frazzled.
Maggie – an Englishwoman a few years younger than me and the mother of three – unwrapped my child and stared at his composed little face framed by the bunting’s hood. “Oh,” she said. “He’s golden.”
I hired her. During her first week, I called Maggie from my office, more than once, just to “check in.” One day, Maggie answered the phone in a whisper. “Why are you whispering?” I stage-whispered back, absurdly, from the hubbub of my office.
“He’s sleeping,” she whispered.
“Where?” I shout-whispered back, in shock.
“In the crib,” she answered, as if to say, where else? By contrast, I had yet to get him to nap in anything but his stroller or while being rocked or jiggled. So I asked Maggie, how did she do that? As though I was asking her how she fished for pearls at the bottom of the sea with no oxygen tank – it seemed that exotic to me.
Here’s what she said, out loud this time: “He seemed sleepy. So I put him down.”
Boom: Naptime, solved. My mommy-skill toolkit grew four sizes that day. (Also, I never called Maggie from work again unless I had a damn good reason.)
What I learned wasn’t just how to be alert to the signs of a sleepy baby. I also realized that while I may have been the first so-called expert in my son’s parenting, I wasn’t always the best, nor was I always the one he would need at any given time.
Sometimes it’s better not coming from mom.
Two years ago, about a week after Halloween, my younger son came home from fourth grade, threw down his backpack and said, breathlessly, “Mom! Guess what Mr. Greco told us? I mean, guess what’s in FunDip? It’s just sugar and food dye!” Does it matter how often I had inveighed against the crappiest kind of candy, trying to teach my sons what in their trick or treat bags was worth indulging in and what was pure evil? No. Because Mr.Greco said so.
Teachers have done far more than instruct my children in math and spelling and what makes a volcano blow. My older boy had a sixth grade special-education teacher who coached him on how to recognize the signs of impending anxiety and breathe through it. He noticed my son’s sharp and ironic sense of humor and used it to help him stay organized. “Kid, I love you, but you’re a disaster,” Mr. Metzak would say, as he stayed after school to help my son clean out his backpack. (You can guess what would have happened if I’d used those words). In my overheated imagination I wished Mr. Metzak could stay with my son all the way through high school, but in my rational mind, I still thank him every day, for the tiny victory of showing my son that an adult other than the rotating carousel of dementedly loving parents and grandparents think he’s awesome. That he’s golden. That he’s got this. Couldn’t have gotten that across, most likely, alone.
So to the adult leaders of Troop 406? If you see my boy not being as good a scout or friend as he can be? Tell him. Talk to him. Lead him. I invite you, I invite all the adults in both my sons’ lives, to help me with this immense, difficult project of turning out two good men. We can manage it if we do it together. And belated thanks to Maggie: when our golden boy gets sleepy, Mags? He puts himself to bed now.
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