When your kids are bigger than you are, you have to fight that insignificant feeling

April 07, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

WHEN I SAW my nephew Rudi dressed in uniform for his junior ROTC ball and looking for all the world as if he were leaving on the next troop carrier for Bosnia, I said what would probably be considered the wrong thing. Especially because I said it in front of his date.

"Oh my God! I used to change this boy's diapers."

He was all shoulders and gold braid, all epaulets and brass buttons and not at all the little boy in sleepers to whom I would read stories while his parents slept in.

During recent trips to the hometown where my three sisters live, I have seen with fresh eyes my nephews, who appear to have done nothing but eat and grow since I saw them at Christmas.

Bill is wearing his father's suits and talking his father's brand of politics. Stephen wants to pierce one ear and wear a string tie to church. And John Ford can now tuck his hair behind his ears.

Born in a cluster, these guys are driving and shaving -- neither one well nor often -- and they are taller than their mothers and better looking than their dads, and I am stuck thinking of them as little boys. My sisters' babies.

These women and their sons have passed gracefully through a moment that my son and I are fast approaching. That time when we can't make our sons do what we say, and they know it. That point where we both realize that Mom can no longer enforce rules with the force that has always been implied in the tone of her voice.

When one of my nephews -- who shall remain nameless -- copped an attitude with his mother and used a tone of voice that sent flames of anger up her neck and into her cheeks, she told him in a voice low and steely that she would smack his face if he ever talked like that to her again.

What both knew but did not acknowledge was that she would have to reach up to do that, and he could no doubt stop her hand with the powerful reflexes of his own.

Such face-slapping is rare -- perhaps too rare -- among a generation of mothers educated to believe that physical force is physical abuse. But since the time when we were advised that if a child refused to dress for nursery school we should simply put him in the car in his pajamas, we have believed that we could impose our will on our children by size alone.

What do you do when your children realize they are bigger than you?

A friend who will soon be the shortest person in a family of three sons says that we must keep talking, even after we realize we can't back it up. Sort of the family version of U.S. currency.

"We have to keep saying it like we mean it," she said.

We must patiently state and restate our standards and our expectations and the limits of our tolerance, because our children are listening, even if they are pretending not to, and they need to know -- want to know -- where we stand, if only so they can more precisely probe us for weaknesses.

"You can't throw up your hands and quit," she told me. "You can't give up your standards, but you have to articulate them in a nonconfrontational way. They have to be observations instead of directives.

"Such as: 'I really believe it is important to . I really can't approve of that . I'm sure you understand that . Our family has always tried to .'

"Like that."

There is an awkwardness in trying to direct the behavior of someone physically larger. That physical size is what you confront each morning at breakfast, but it is also symbolic of emotional growth, of maturity, and is a warning to us that our children really are separate human beings whom we can no longer control.

Not that we won't continue to try.

Recently, my son, who spends most of his days eating and most of his nights growing, responded to my call for him by saying, "Wha' chew wan', homey?"

Saying it as though I could still make it happen, I told him in a voice low and steely:

"I am not your homey. I am your Mommy. And if you ever call me that again, I will prove it to you by kissing your sweet face in front of any four of your friends."

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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