Recently, I asked my five-year-old to get me something from upstairs. "Yes, your majesty," was his reply. The day before that, it was "Certainly, Miss Mommy". Last week? "Sir, yes, sir" and "Whatever you say, Lady."
I can't decide whether this lack of respect upsets me or not. On one hand, he is being what my mother would have called "fresh." On the other hand, the atmosphere in the house is convivial and open. He talks to me, and tells me everything - things I'd have been afraid to tell my parents. I figure: I can deal with the insolence if it buys me honesty.
Don't get me wrong; I am not one of these parents who will do anything to be popular with my kids. That is not my goal. There is a clear structure of authority in our house - we, the parents, have restricted areas with "Do Not Cross This Line" written all over them.
To name only a few: Bedtime is non-negotiable, and schedules are firm. Lies are not tolerated, nor is wild behavior or violent language. You clean up what you took out, you return what you borrowed (with permission), you are responsible for your own actions, and a promise is a promise.
Our children are expected to be extremely helpful to us, to each other, and to their friends. Even the baby knows this.
Our five-year-old son has taken on a great deal of responsibility on his own initiative -- well beyond what we've asked of him. He answers the phone, makes his own lunch, dresses himself and plays with his baby brother for long periods of time so I can actually pee or put clothes in the dryer. He has said, "Mom, whenever you need me to watch this baby, I can. It's not a problem for me. He's pretty cute."
This is the same child who has asked me, "What? You didn't hear me? You don't have ears?" and "Why don't you stop annoying me, for God's sake?"
I know that this familiarity between my sons and my husband and me is contemptible to some parents. Those who believe that a child has to know his place find our tolerance and our often democratic method of parenting offensive.
Maybe it's a "generation thing" (my husband and I are "X-ers"), but we don't mind so much that our son is a champion bargainer and often enjoys having the last word. As long as he doesn't cross the line, as long as he is not out of control, we're ok with a bit of debate. My husband seems to actually enjoy it sometimes.
We have good friends who think this is absurd. We were guests in their home for a meal when my son asked if he could take a chocolate for dessert. I said "One." My little used car salesman, true to form, said "Two." I agreed. The hosts looked at me as if I'd just given him permission to elope. "Set limits!" they admonished.
I'd rather pick my fights, I explained. I certainly wasn't prepared to let him finish the box of sweets, but what's one more? He's a good eater. I just want him to have healthful eating habits -- I'm not concerned that he doesn't fear my word as Ultimate Law.
So far, he's a compassionate, honest, thinking, moral citizen of the world. He is even respectful - almost deferential - to his teachers and other adults. So what if he doesn't feel squeamish about negotiating with his parents?
Of course, there are times when I wish I didn't have to discuss everything with him. When I wish that he wasn't so "empowered." Yesterday, I told him to turn off the TV. "One more minute," was his reply. I told him, "Now. It is dinnertime NOW. There are no more minutes this time." He stood firm - he wanted that minute. He wanted the last word. I turned off the TV myself, and there was a tantrum.
I said to myself, Maybe I should be the kind of mother whose word is Law. Maybe he should be the kind of kid who says "Yes, Ma'am", and that's it. Do I need all this resistance? Does he need all this liberty?
But when I think of the incisive way he thinks over problems, of the clear way he expresses his concerns, and of the high-level discussions I'm able to have with this little kid, I feel validated. I'm not raising any scurrying, scared mice.
I'm raising a used car salesman.
Or, at least, a President.