Our family had a yard sale last weekend. We gathered old appliances, clothes our kids had outgrown, books, DVDs, and a bunch of our sons’ baby toys. My 9-year-old set up a lemonade stand. We had fun sitting outside, talking, laughing, watching our neighbors browse, and enjoying a million cups of lemonade on a hot summer day. (Needless to say, we were our own biggest customers.)
My sons handled the selling of their toys well, which surprised me. They were proud to let go of their baby stuff, and pocket some money, which we promised they could spend on new toys.
It all seemed to have gone off without a hitch — that is, until my sons were cozy in bed, about to fall asleep.
Basically, each of them, independently, turned into emotional basket-cases.
First to melt down was my 3-year-old, just as he curled into me for goodnight hugs. “But I need my green garbage truck,” he said quickly. “Make sure we still have that.” And since he’s 3, that request was followed up by instant tears, and protests until I promised that we still had it. (I honestly wasn’t sure, but I fudged a “yes,” and figured I would find out after he fell asleep.)
My 9-year-old, who seemed not to notice one single toy that day because he was so fixated on his lemonade business, also had a moment. After I kissed him goodnight, his voice cracked. “We still have my ride-on car, right?” he said. “The one I used to ride when I was a baby?”
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m pretty sure it’s outside. Now go to sleep.”
“You need to check,” he said, “I can’t sleep unless I know it’s there.”
“It’s raining now. We’ll check in the morning. But I’m sure it’s there,” I said, before convincing him (in gentler words) to finally go the eff to sleep.
We’d put the tricycles and ride-on toys by the curb in case anyone wanted them. And sure enough, when I made my husband go out and take a look, my son’s ride-on car was gone.
At first, I fretted about how we would tell my son about the toy. I even thought that maybe we should just go out and buy another one. But that was a totally absurd idea, considering he wouldn’t even fit on it, and that the only reason he wanted the old one was because of its sentimental value.
Then I had a lightbulb moment: this was not a crisis. There was nothing to be fixed. There was no reason my son actually needed his old ride-on car. And also no reason my little guy still needed his green garbage truck.
My boys were just having feelings — big ones, sentimental ones, vulnerable ones — and I suddenly became terribly happy that they were having them, and that they could share such feelings with me.
Yes, considering both of their toys were gone (turns out the garbage truck was also nowhere to be found, either), my boys were going to need to “get over it” and move on. Life is sometimes unfair like that, and children need to develop a certain amount of grit to make it through.
But emotions don’t need to be swallowed. Kids need a safe place to let them out. And I’m glad my sons have that — especially my older one, who is becoming less and less emotive as the years go by.
Our world can be a cruel, cruel place sometimes. This summer, in particular, has been one fraught with hatred and violence. The news has been filled with it — shootings, protests, more shootings, and hate-filled speech, often out of the mouths of our politicians themselves. A couple of people close to me have experienced tragedies — loss and pain that I can’t even comprehend.
There have been many times this summer that I’ve felt helpless. I keep asking myself: What can I do to make this world a better place? A kinder place? A place where peace reigns, instead of vitriol and violence?
But maybe the answer is right here, in my home; in my sons’ bedroom as they drift off to sleep, pouring their hearts out to me. Maybe the most important thing I can do is be their mom, and give them a place to be vulnerable, to be themselves, and to be honest.
Let’s face it: Most of the violence we see in the world is perpetuated by men — men who were once boys, who had parents whose job it was to shape them into upstanding citizens. Good, respectful, kind men. I don’t know why some men turn out well, and others turn aggressive, violent, or worse.
I don’t know who is to blame exactly when a man feels it’s in any way appropriate to stand up in front of a camera and say that certain races or religions don’t deserve the same basic rights as others. I don’t know how it happens that a young man thinks there is anything remotely OK about touching a woman in any way without her utmost, totally conscious consent. I don’t know whose fault it is when a man goes off the wire and shoots his family, a room full of people — a room full of children.
I really don’t have the answers. And often, I lie awake, dumbfounded by it all, truly wondering whether World War III is about to begin any minute now.
But maybe I can start with my own sons. Maybe by showing my sons that they don’t need to have hearts of steel, that their vulnerable feelings are expected and OK, I can make an impact on the world in my own small way. I can raise boys — who will one day be men — to have empathy, compassion, and to know how to treat others with open arms and kindness.
I want my sons to be the ones who rush to a baby when it starts crying, pick it up, and shush it. I want them to be the ones to treat everyone they meet with respect, no matter their skin color, religion, disability, or gender. I want them to be good listeners, open-minded thinkers, and moral citizens.
So yes, I need to teach them to be strong. Strength is certainly a necessity as I send them out in this world. But so is heart. And softness. I want my sons to stay soft, open, vulnerable.
I can’t save the world, but I hope I’m doing right by my sons, and that in my own way as a mom, I’m raising men who will make the world a more loving, gentler place.More On