A scrub jay swoops out of a redwood tree, scoops high into the air above the road I’m driving on, backstrokes its burnished blue wings for a moment, baring its chest to the rising sun, then dives into a shrub across the road. “See?” my poet brain thinks, “Even a bird known for attacking others’ nests—even he gives his heart to the light.”
I’m worried about B-Man, my eight-year-old. He’s strapped in the backseat, on the way to school, arms crossed over his chest, face set in a scowl that signals early onset of the tween years. Today’s offense: his once-upon-a-time-could-do-no-wrong mom put an actual hardboiled egg in his lunch, instead of buying him Lunchables (“like every other mom in the world buys for her kid,” Mr. Scowly Face might add, with a punctuating gasp and eye-roll).
I could lose myself in reminiscing here: Where have the years gone? Remember how snuggly he used to be? But I’m more concerned about this: each day B-Man seems to add a few more bricks to the wall he’s building around his heart.
Lately he’s been saying stuff like, “I don’t love anyone. I only like people.” He’s rejecting things he’s always enjoyed—for instance, hard boiled eggs in his school lunch, or “Friend of the Devil” by Grateful Dead—because other kids at school don’t like them. And now this phrase has wormed its way into his regular repertoire: “I just want to be like everyone else.”
When he says that, I want to respond, “Good freakin’ luck, kid who has two moms, kid who taught himself how to read when he was two, kid who studies street maps and memorizes freeway routes for fun. You’re different. Everyone, in some ways, is different. That’s what makes the world interesting.” But these days that “diversity is awesome” line amounts to parent gibberish that just doesn’t translate, like speaking Swahili to a Korean kid.
While other people might label B’s present state “predictable behavior for an eight-year-old,” what I see is a sensitive kid pasting protective scales over his heart. And I see him doing this in response to peers who are becoming increasingly more judgmental, cantankerous, teasing, and critical toward each other. And I’m harboring this fear that in his attempt to blend in and avoid the negative attentions of his peers, my boy will paste so many scales over his tenderness—over his own true likes and dislikes, his own feelings and reactions, his own hopes and fears—that he’ll lose contact with himself entirely.
I remember being eight. I remember feeling a distinct shift between second and third grade. One year I was operating in a world where all my classmates interacted as a group—celebrating Denise Teegan’s hermit crabs (brilliantly named Starsky and Hutch), laughing at Andrew Cutchin’s Alka Seztler diarrhea joke (“plop, plop, fizz fizz . . . ”), drawing get well cards for Kevin Schwartz when he broke his collar bone in a bike accident. The next year I entered a world in which Laura Keller became an outcast for wearing cheap, knock-off rainbow suspenders instead of the official Mork and Mindy ones, a world in which everyone flocked to sign Nicole Orton’s plaster arm cast not because we wanted to wish well another classmate who had fallen and lived to tell the tale, but because she was super popular and writing your name on her arm was like buying front-page ad space announcing your friendship with third-grade royalty.
I suspect I too began armoring my heart at this age. I clearly remember the wistful tone in my mother’s voice when she asked eight-year-old me, “What happened to my sweet little girl?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. Nor does B-Man know what’s happening to him right now. He’s reacting to his environment the same way scores of other children have. (Heaven help him.) He’s differentiating from his parents. (Damn him.) He’s navigating the differences between the way things work at home (kindness counts) and the way things work in the social environment at school (he who quips best wins).
It’s hard to watch. But I’ve learned enough to know that I cannot—nor should I if I could—rescue my son from the challenges of childhood. I can’t make him into one of those impossibly precocious movie characters who says stuff the writer wishes she had thought of when she was eight years old. Nor can I (as much as I’d like to) infuse him with the gumption of a character like Paikea in Whale Rider.
No, finding the balance between being himself and fitting in, between holding his tenderness and protecting himself against hurt—that’s B-Man’s messy territory to navigate. Eventually I learned to unclench my protected heart and create a life true to who I am, and—while I hope for his sake it won’t take a decade of therapy to do so—I trust B-Man will do the same.
Meanwhile, what I can do, what that scrub jay I saw reminds me to do, is to notice those moments when B-Man is baring his heart to the light. Like the other day when he admitted that an Alabama Shakes song is “okay even though they use real drums and no Auto-Tune,” or last night when I tucked him into bed and he played with my hair and called me “mommy-mom,” or last weekend when, after insisting I was not allowed to watch his karate belt test, not even to take pictures, he stopped himself at the doorway of the dojo, made eye contact with me, and whispered, “Mom, stay.”
What I can do is make sure that, in his moments of open-heartedness, B-Man is met not by a defended person seasoned in protective sarcasm (Oh really, now you want me to stay?), but by an equally open, receptive heart, welcoming him home.
As the sun rises on B-Man’s tween years, it looks like we both have our work cut out for us.