Stepping out of the bathroom, a towel heavy on my head, he was the first thing my wandering eyes caught. Watching him play quietly in his room is always a treat, but this was new.
Sitting just on the edge of his bed, his little knees were cradling a book – a big one – open to some random page of an unnumbered chapter in the middle. His eyes were locked in a sturdy gaze over the page, his body stiff with concentration — except for a murmur brushing his lips.
The only bathroom we have faces all three of their bedrooms, so no matter what time of day or night it is, it’s just habit to look in on them on my way out. I usually stop there, wrapped in a towel, watching them for a minute while I pass the time it takes to shimmy a second one over my hair and swab the dampness out of my ears.
His legs are so short that his size 10 sneakers have to rest on the lip of wood nesting his mattress. He is four, really reading a nineteen chapter book about Abraham Lincoln, published in the sixties and pulled from a box of library recycling just before it was trashed. His dad, an unpolished, big-hearted recycling truck driver, knows how much I love reading “crap like this” to the kids, so he’s always coming home with books that almost didn’t make it.
He doesn’t understanding half of what he’s reading yet, not from a book like that. He’s skipping over words that are more than a few syllables long, unless they’re familiar enough to try sounding out. But he’s working hard at something, just because he feels like it.
What’s shocking about it is that ten minutes before, he was rocking the house with a lung-scathing tantrum. His sister was dragging him by the wrist out of her room and I could hear Matthew calling her a stupid jerk idiot. I had pulled the curtain back grudgingly and was literally screaming to be heard under the hissing hot water, through the barrier of the closed bathroom door, and over their combined volume on the other side, while he kicked repeatedly at a wall. “GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW, MATTHEW! MATTHEW, COME IN HERE AND TELL ME THE PROBLEM! MATTHEW!”
So I expected to see him sitting on the floor when I got out, still seething in a pile of thrown-about toys, arms crossed and face scrunched. Our days always turn again and again from feeling like I’ve got none of this under control, to being positively on top of it all, like I should have someone being paid to follow me around and take notes. I’m shocked, but not floored. Chaos will ensue again, you can be sure of that.
“Wow. Whatcha got there, bud?”
“Mommy!!” An urgency charges over him, snapping his trance like pretzel while he clumsily flutters through pages. “Look at these cool pictures – hold on, I’ll find ’em…” His lips wouldn’t stop moving except to rapidly suck in spit that sometimes collects when he talks really fast — a habit that drives his sister up the wall because it’s gross and embarrassing. “I found this book about a president! His name is not APE, it’s ABE. I opened it and I saw, guess what word!: RIDE. And then I saw another word next to it that I didn’t know and I did my tech-a-nique that you showed me and I sounded it and it said FREEDOM. Like slaves! Like in our book about Thanksgiving! And then I kept lookin’ and there was THE and there was IS and there was BUT and there was MEN and there was ABOUT and there was GUNS and there was LOTS of words that I know. HERE’S THE PICTURE! Look!!”
I cocked my head over the page and we both laughed, scrunching up our noses at each other and then back at the book. Staring up at us was an inky illustration of a hand doing something poetic that wouldn’t make sense to any kid sporting cartoon tank-engines on the side of his shoe. I almost explained it to him, what the picture metaphor was trying to say. But I decided instead to let him be four and just think it was funny.
“I think it’s about the country or somethin'” he said. “It says the U-nine-ed States a lot — like in the ‘ledge of allegiance!, but I don’t know all the words. Just, like, some of ’em.”
Lately, being a good parent to Matthew has meant focusing on humility. He’s a good-hearted little boy. He prays more often than I do, sometimes even taking my hand in his out of the blue and asking if I’ll help him pray for stuff. Meaningful stuff, like that his sister sleeps well tonight after having a nightmare the day before. He’s nurturing and tender to children who are smaller than him, he’s very accepting of anyone who’s different, and he’s a born defender of the weak. He’s always been the first to speak up for anyone being talked down to — at as little as two years old, he’d square off to his pop-pop or uncle or father and tell them with a stomp of his foot not to talk to his cousin, or his mom-mom, or his cat “like that anymore!” He was born high energy with a fire-eating temper, but at the core of who he is, he’s really a very special, one-of-a-kind kid. It’s not hard to be radiantly proud of myself for being the vessel that brought him into the world. To me, (as well it should be) this kid is magic.
But part of that magic is being a perfectionist. When he was two, he’d struggle, tear-stained and petulant over not being able to write a capital A with a perfect point at the top. He’d throw things after trying 27 times and he’d cry and he’d call himself stupid until he got it. It was his process, and try as I would to tell him that he didn’t have to learn this stuff yet, he’d hate himself until he got it. And even then he wouldn’t beam with pride; just put it aside, breathe easy a time or two and go on to play with something else. It’s two years later, and now we have a new problem. He knows that he is smart, but he actually believes that he is smarter than other kids. In fact, the other day, he told me that he was smarter than me – and his dad, combined. He didn’t even say it in a way that was meant to sting. He said it as though he were stating a fact, one that I should be proud of.
This is what Spencer always worried about. My husband, ever the graceful one with words, swore that every super smart kid he ever knew was annoying as hell when they were small and then grew up to be a total dick. Then again, too many kids nowadays take no pride in being successful at school. So where do you toe the line? And how do you draw it for a kid this small to understand?
So now, I tell him that he is smart. But I remind him every time that being “smart” is not about how much he knows. It’s about how excited he gets to learn about the things that he doesn’t know yet. I tell him on a regular loop that everyone has things they haven’t learned yet – even the very, very smartest grown-ups in the world. And that the wisest people are the ones who are proud to admit there are still lots of things they don’t know, and are excited about it! — because it means that they still have lots of opportunities to learn. Learning is what makes us smart, not already knowing more than the next guy.
The impression was not immediate. At first, he stomped off pouting, claiming that I hurt his feelings because I wasn’t proud of him for being smarter than me. He even tried to take a gentle approach on another day saying, “Yeah, I get it. But, still,” with a condescending tilt of his head and a hand on my shoulder, “I AM actually smarter than you. I just won’t say it to you anymore.” -_- You’re killin’ me, Smalls.
But after a couple of repetitions, it sank in. We’re learning to be the parents our little boy needs; one that nurture a love of even old, forgotten books. Ones that offer him the best of educations. Ones that prize humility over accomplishment. Ones that love him for all that he is, no matter what. But ones that do our part to make sure he grows up strong in all aspects of life – not just the ones that come naturally, or that we like best.
Their needs are changing all the time. But our pride in them never will. To us, he will always be a gift to the world. Just, you know.. a slightly more humble one.