Decaf Soy Cappuccino
"Mommy? Is Moby in this world?"
"Yes, Oliver. Moby's a real person."
"But where is he?"
"Somewhere in California...?"
"Because it's a lovely state, dear..."
"Mommy? Is Dr. Bruce Banner in this world?"
"No, Ovi. He's just pretend."
"Welp... I will want to be the Hulk for Halloween, and I want Daddy to be Iron Man, and Henry to be Captain America, and I want you to be Thor, Mommy."
"What happened to being a superhero-fairy-knight?"
"I'm going to be that, too. I just need the big green Hulk hands!"
"No. More. Costumes."
"Mommy, I know Santa Claus is in this world, but he's just pretend."
"...Hmm. I'm not sure you've quite got this one, O-boy."
"Not exactly... There was a real person, who lived long ago, who gave gifts to all the little children in his little town. And over many, many years, his story - the story of his kindness - became the story of Santa Claus which we tell today."
"Does Santa live at the mall?"
"No, little love. The real Santa isn't in this world anymore. The Santa that we see every year and take our picture with is just a kind person who dresses up in a Santa costume to help people celebrate Christmas. It's just like when you dressed up as a fireman to celebrate this Halloween."
"Why are you covering your eyes, Ovi?"
"I don't like this commercial!"
"You know Star Wars is just pretend, right?"
"Yeah, but the guys on there have the things that poke holes in people!"
"Oh... You don't like the Stormtroopers because they have guns?"
"Yeah! But I like the music, that's why I'm just covering my eyes!"
"Mommy? Can we look up the Star Wars commercial on YouTube?"
"I want the shoes that light up, Mommy!"
"You're sure you're okay having Kylo Ren on your shoes?"
"And here we meet our first hero... Princess Leia..."
"Hey, Stormtrooper! Wanna hear a joke about killing bad guys? Pew-pew!!"
I never taught him to say "pew-pew", nor did he hear it from anyone else, so far as I can tell.
"I don't want you to die, Mommy."
"Me neither! But I'm not going to die, baby, not for a long time..."
"But I don't want you to die ever!"
"It's okay, babylove... Someday, most likely a long, long time from now, when I'm very old and my body's done... eventually, it'll be my time to die."
"But I will be too sad!"
"It's okay to be sad. And it's okay for people to die. You know how much you want to be a daddy, someday, and have a baby? Well, think about all the babies being born right now, and how they are going to grow up, too, and have their own babies... If the older people didn't die, there would be no room for all the babies to be born. But we've got a long, long time to spend together before that happens..."
"When I'm a grown-up, I'm going to make a merry-go-round that makes people be alive again, so when you die I'm going to put you on my merry-go-round and you won't be dead anymore, Mommy, and we can all be alive together - you and me and Daddy and Henry and my baby and the lady that I will make my baby with..."
"Mommy? Did you know that it's a good thing that people die, so they can make room for the babies?"
"Yes, I think I've heard that before..."
"I'm going to kill the rest of the spaghetti..."
"Don't say that word, Daddy!"
"No! Kill! That's a bad word - I don't like that word!"
"Says the boy building lightsabers and blasters out of his blocks..."
"But I need to kill the Stormtroopers to keep you safe, Mommy!"
"You know you can also put them in jail, right? You don't always have to kill the bad guy, right?"
"It's just pretend, Mommy. Stormtroopers aren't really in this world."
"Can I talk to you now, Mommy?"
"Yes, baby... Thank you for waiting so patiently for Mommy to be calm again... I appreciate it."
"I don't like that you get so sad sometimes."
"I know, baby... But I'm not sad all the time. I've got a bad headache, and it's harder for me to be calm like I should be when I'm hurting a lot... But I'm okay now. I'm not sad now..."
"I will be so sad when you die someday."
"Yeah, but you know that's a long time from now..."
"When I'm a grown-up, I will make a machine to make the Earth bigger every time a baby is born, and bigger and bigger so there's always room..."
"...So nobody ever has to die to make room for the new people..."
"Yeah, 'cause I love you and I love the babies!"
"Well, that would have significant gravitational ramifications for the other planets, but it's a sweet idea, honey-love..."
...and that's about where I thought I was going to finish. The coffee shop was closing and I thought I would wrap up at home with some kind of closing thought. But then this happened the very next day...
"Mommy! I need you to make my sandwich!"
"In a little bit, baby. I want to finish what I'm reading..."
Scroll, scroll, scroll...
"Mommy! I need you to make my sandwich now before the end of the episode!"
"I said in a minute, Oliver."
"Mommy? Do you want to be alive anymore days?"
"I want to be alive a lot more days..."
"Then you better make my sandwich right now!"
There is a loud record scratch inside my head.
I look at the quiet fury in his tiny, scrunched face. I get up, turn off the TV and the DVD player, then sit back down and stare at him for another few moments.
"You wanna try that again?"
He is unable to speak in his anger.
"Did you just threaten Mommy? Did you just say that if I didn't make you a sandwich I wouldn't be alive anymore? that you'd kill Mommy?"
He says, very quietly, his face still tight with anger and all kinds of emotional discomfort, "Yes."
He is a stubborn child. Stubborn, precocious, and deeply sensitive. I stare at him a moment more.
"I don't think you want to kill me. I know you love Mommy. But you're frustrated. You're frustrated that you can't get what you want, and you don't know how to get Mom to do what you want. You feel like you have no control, so the only thing you can think of doing is threatening to hurt me. But you don't really want to hurt me, do you? You just don't know what to do."
He crawls into my lap and wraps his arms around my neck and cries. I start to rock him and rub his back.
"Let's just sit here and cuddle for a bit..."
While we were sitting there, rocking, I couldn't help thinking that, as disconcerting as the situation was, that I'd handled it right. There are many times that I've blown up at the boys for something like that, for threatening to hurt each other, or actually hurting each other. I know that yelling or spanking or using any rough physicality with them (yanking them by the arm, picking them up and throwing them onto the bed) is useless, ineffective and emotionally scarring. I've known it every time I've done it. Which is not every time, of course, and anytime I do overreact I make sure to talk to them about why my behavior was wrong, too, and what we can do to maybe not get to that point. I feel like I've said all this before. The good thing is that we've all been getting better at this. My outbursts are less frequent, Henry's are much more predictable and manageable when they come. And Oliver... well, he's 4. He's very, very 4 years-old. Which means he's still learning.
This is not quite where I thought this blog was heading when I began it. I thought it was basically a cute reflection at Oliver's evolving understanding of the world... of what and who is real, of existence and the inevitable end of our existence... But I think this also illustrates just how much we are shaping and guiding his moral worldview. It hasn't been easy, and there's a lot that I still don't know quite how to handle.
I never wanted to emphasize guns or violence, even fantasy violence. But I knew that we couldn't suppress those things. They are too present in our society and they would encounter them sooner or later. My brothers and I played with toy (or pretend) guns when we were little kids. Some psychologists argue that it's healthy for kids to pretend fight bad guys and monsters, that it teaches them that they can conquer the things that scare them.
I wonder, though, if "conquering" our fears isn't a concept entrenched in our violent culture. Does the thought of "slaying" the imaginary dragon translate to suppressing unwanted emotions? Should we be teaching kids how to live with their dragons instead? (There is a book to that effect called, "You've Got Dragons", but it's probably more for school-age kids). Are the boys too young to introduce them to all these moral complexities? Should we continue to let them "pew-pew!" the bad guys, and just gradually continue to introduce them to the practice of empathizing with others?
We've pretty much tended towards the latter strategy, using the vernacular of the social norms that surround us. We've let the boys wear their Star Wars t-shirts, each with a picture of mass murderer Darth Vader on them - a big-headed cartoonish Vader on Ovi's, and a Lego version on Henry's. At this point, it seems futile to fight the appeal of one of world's most popular science fiction franchises. We have decided to take them through the movies ourselves (we started with Episodes 4 - 6, and have gone back and begun the prequels), so we can try to avoid the worst parts, and so we can discuss some of the motivations and choices of the characters. And it seems to be paying off.
Later, the same day as Oliver's peanut butter sandwich meltdown...
Oliver and I had picked up Henry from school, and I was helping them with their seatbelts. I gave each one a kiss and told them I loved them before crawling out of the back and reentering the front.
"And do you love everybody in this world just a little bit, Mommy?"
"Yes, Ovi. I really do."
"Even the bad people?"
"Yeah. And sometimes that's really hard because there are people that have done some really bad stuff. Just like Darth Vader did some really bad stuff-"
"But he's a good guy!"
"Not while he was Vader. He did some really terrible stuff-"
"But why did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader?"
"Well... he was a good guy. He did a lot of good things, but he also had a lot of fear and anger... and people can do bad things when they're hurting like that... and that's what lead him to the dark side, to Vader... Doing the bad things made him feel powerful, like he could control all those things that made him scared and hurt..."
"But he became a good guy again at the end..."
"That's right. He thought he was bad, and had to stay bad because of all he'd done. But Luke knew that there was still good in him. Deep down, he still wanted to be good, and because Luke saw that, and because he believed that his father could be good after all that he had done, Vader saw it too and became Anakin again... The Emperor was never conflicted. He only ever wanted power, and he never cared if he was doing something good or bad.
"And that's why it's hard but I try to love everyone, just a little bit, because you don't know if the bad guys in this world are Darth Vader and can be saved, or are the Emperor... Either way, I'm going to go with love...
"You remember how you were frustrated earlier and said something very bad?"
"What did I do? Did I yell and punish you?"
"You said I can't have ice cream tonight..."
"Yeah, and that stands. But right then I talked to you, and I hugged you tight. That's the love..."
"What about Kylo Ren?"
"We'll have to wait and see..."
As I said before, Oliver is four (four and a half, to be more precise), and Henry just turned six. They don't really want to hear Mom wax philosophic. They have both, at times, told me they don't want to hear my voice anymore. So I try to not overdo the speeches, and focus instead on show-don't-tell teaching. But it's still important to talk, and to keep talking, and to look for the moments when you can - or must - redirect their focus. It's just really hitting me now how different that focus could be with different guides.
later that night...
Tucking in the boys, Oliver kissed me and wrapped his arms around my neck.
"Good night, babylove..."
He whispered in my ear, "You're my favorite mommy and my favorite person..."