You are on summer vacation! That sounds like fun. We’ve got a lot of fun things planned for this summer, and I think you’ll really enjoy them. There’s also lots of opportunities for unplanned fun — things like running out for soft serve or staying up past your bedtime. All you have to do is play your cards right.
Auntie Jessie taught me something important about parenting pretty soon after I became a parent, and it’s a lesson I try to remember. It was a pretty simple rule:
“Never hand out a punishment or consequence that’s a bigger pain for you than it is for the children.”
Words to live by.
What she means is this: if you’re running around the house all day screaming and fighting, it’s very tempting to say, “That’s it! No TV this afternoon!” But that’s a terrible idea, because it’s more of a punishment for me than it is for you. You’ll continue to run around the house screaming, and I will lose that hour of relative quiet when I can take a breath and actually make some headway into preparing a meal. You watching TV for an hour is my reward, not yours.
This brings us to a topic I have not mentioned to you. There is a drive-in movie theatre a very short drive from our house. That movie theatre is showing Monsters University this weekend. Do I need to say anything else? Let’s be clear: I would like to take you to see Monsters University at an actual, honest-to-god, drive-in movie theatre.
Your daddy has never been to a drive-in. Not once. When I was a kid, by the time my parents decided I was grown up enough to stay up and go to a drive-in, they had all closed down. Except for the one near us, where I’d like to take you. But that one only showed porn when I was a kid. Never mind.
Anyway, you might think that going to a drive-in would fall squarely within Auntie Jessie’s rule. I shouldn’t cancel a trip to something I’d like to do because you aren’t behaving. But Auntie Jessie’s rule doesn’t cover everything.
So here’s Daddy’s Rule:
“If you want me to take you a drive-in movie, you need to create a day — just one day! — where the idea of letting you stay up three hours past your bedtime does not make me want to jab an ice pick into my ear.”
As I type this, the children are sitting in time out. Andrew is doing a repeated sigh, I can only assume he’d like me to know that he does not enjoy time out. Jordan is sobbing, because it’s not fair to have a time out for choking Andrew when Andrew deserved to be choked.
We’ve entered the hazy, lazy days of summer vacation. The ice cold drinks in the sun are punctuated only by the joyful sounds of children. No, wait. That’s not joy, it’s the sound of two little boys choking each other.
In summer, one day blends slowly into the next. It’s hard to say when one day ends and the next begins, as we sit in the endless twilight, enjoying the company of beloved family.
No, it’s 3:17 in the afternoon, which means that we’ve been on summer vacation for three and a half hours. Three hours and twenty minutes, if you only count from the time the children got off the school bus.
Here’s what I’ve done on my summer vacation:
I put on my hat and walk to the end of the driveway, waiting for Jordan’s bus. It’s beautiful out. I scroll through twitter on my phone while I sit on the retaining wall at the edge of the driveway.
Jordan arrives home. His bus driver, who adores him, wishes him a wonderful summer.
Jordan is on the floor, sobbing. He wanted to drive to New Jersey to visit my in-laws. Today. Because it’s summer vacation now, isn’t it? Our trip to visit them at the end of May was too long ago, and “also it was boring because it was too short and short trips don’t count as trips and I don’t love Bubbe and Zayde anymore anyway and I do not want to see them. EVER. AGAIN.”
Jordan has calmed down, and would like a snack. I explain that we’ll be having lunch in about five minutes, as soon as Andrew’s bus drops him off. Jordan sobs again.
Jordan curls up on the couch with his stuffed cat. I go to meet Andrew’s bus.
Andrew’s bus arrives.
Andrew hates lunch, but he’s glad we’re eating outside on the new patio. Jordan spilled his milk, and he “hates lunch even though I ate it all and if you make the same thing again I will not eat it and I will not eat lunch outside again. NOT. EVER. AGAIN.”
All of the boys’ toys are boring, and the only way they will have any fun this summer is if I take them out to buy new toys or let them play on the Wii U.
Andrew tickles Jordan. Jordan chokes Andrew.
Andrew takes the Lego pieces Jordan was playing with. Jordan slaps Andrew.
Andrew would like to do some homework. So he does.
One hour of Mario. No one hits, no one bites, no one screams, no one scratches.
The hour is over. Jordan is on the floor, sobbing.
We’re in time out again, because we can’t stop fighting.
I realize that this falls pretty far short of being a super power, but it makes me feel competent in the kitchen. I don’t have any other particularly identifiable cooking skills. I do fine, but I make a mess, and I take longer than people who are actually good at cooking. But breaking an egg? I do great.
Whack side of sink. Crack over bowl. Shell in the garbage disposal.
This morning, I made myself some scrambled eggs. But instead of my usual skill, I goofed it up. Instead of popping open the first egg over the bowl, I opened it right down the garbage disposal. Not because I hit it too hard on the side of the sink and it leaked out. No, I just dumped it right down the drain.
I made a mistake, obviously. My first thought wasn’t, “Oops,” though. I went immediately to degenerative brain disease. It’s been ten years since my aunt died, and I remember the dismissal of her earliest symptoms. She complained that she’d find herself standing in a room with no idea why she had gone there, and my family said, “Yes, that’s called getting old.”
It’s not that the answer was a bad one. I’ve put the milk away in the cabinet instead of the refrigerator. I’ve put a tea kettle on the stove and come back an hour later to find a broken, dry tea kettle smoldering. These are signs of distraction, not a degenerative brain disease. Except that sometimes they are the signs of a degenerative brain disease.
My maternal grandmother is in hospice care. She lives in a nursing home, and has had a steady decline since my grandfather died four years ago. She’s moved from sometimes confused to often confused, from often confused to usually confused. Now we only get a rare glimpse of the person we know and love.
The staff at the nursing home have been wonderful, but they’ll never know my grandmother. My mother and I laugh whenever someone at the nursing home describes my grandmother as “sweet,” or “cute.”
“There are lots of words I’d use to describe Nana,” says my mother, “but ‘sweet’ and ‘cute’ will never be on that list.”
My Nana was an English teacher. She retired on June 19, 1978. I know the date because I happened to be born on the last day of school that year. She is whip smart, and possessed of a biting sense of humor. I like to think that she invented the side eye.
She could do flawless impressions of people. Not extended performances, but if she was telling you a story about something someone said, their words came out of her mouth in their voice, not her own.
In the mid 80s, when my brother was probably 4 or 5, she baked us a batch of chocolate chip cookies. My brother told Nana that her cookies were good, but “not as good as Almost Home,” a brand of packaged cookies my mother would often buy. I don’t think Nana ever quite forgave my brother for that slight.
Nana mostly sleeps these days, and if she happens to be awake, her speech is infrequent and incoherent. On Friday, when my mother visited, Nana was annoyed. She snapped my mother, snapped at my father, snapped at the social worker from hospice. When they went for a walk, the social director of the nursing home put her hand on my grandmother’s arm and said good morning.
My grandmother grabbed the woman’s hand and dug her nails in. My mother had to pry her fingers off.
The woman shrugged it off and said, “Oh, Agnes, you’re surprisingly strong.”
My mother laughed as she told me, “Now that’s the mother I remember.”
“Boys,” I yell, “what’s going on up there? You sound like a herd of elephants.”
“It’s not my fault, Daddy!” calls Jordan. “Andrew made me do it.”
“I did NOT,” says Andrew, indignant. “You wanted to do it.”
“Do what?” I ask.
Jordan has come down to the kitchen by now, and he says, “Andrew was timing me, to see how fast I could go up and down the stairs.”
Now Andrew comes into the room, holding up one of those little sand timers you find in a board game. “I was just timing him, he was the one running on the stairs,” he says. Then he adds, “But I don’t know how long it took him, because this timer doesn’t really even tell you.”
“The rule is that we don’t run inside the house, guys,” I say. “Especially not on the stairs.”
We live in an old house, and the stairs are awful. Really awful. They’re steep. Steep enough that adults often put a hand out in front of themselves when ascending. They go around corners. Even just carrying a laundry basket up the stairs requires you to lift the basket practically above your head in order to fit. These are advanced stairs for advanced stair users. When I use the stairs in other homes, I get a little jealous.
“Oh, your stairs are so comfortable to use!” is a thing that I have actually said, out loud, to other people.
So I’m a little annoyed that Andrew would convince his little brother to run up and down our stairs. Jordan works with a physical therapist and an occupational therapist every week, and stairs have always been a challenge for him. Especially our awful stairs.
Secretly, though? I’m proud of Jordan for running up and down those stairs. That’s a big deal. He may not run like the other kids, but he’s getting closer and closer. And he’s worked really hard to get there.
Andrew has worked really hard, too. When he was four, no one could understand what he was saying. He had lived with us for months before I was able to understand his speech with any regularity. He used to have to repeat himself so many times to be understood. We used to work on using different words to say the same thing, on the theory that if you said, “Can we go to the park?” and “I’d like to visit the playground,” you were increasing the odds that someone would be able to puzzle out what you were saying. And that’s a tough skill for a four-year-old; they have a hard enough time coming up with just one way to turn their thoughts into coherent sentences.
I remember the week that Andrew’s speech therapist told him a story to teach him how to make the K sound and the G sound. She told a story about a little boy whose necktie was on too tight, nearly choking him, and all that came out was a coughing “K-k-k-k-k-k-k!” sound. Then, once he took the necktie off, he gulped down a giant glass of water, swallowing so much so quickly that it went, “Guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh!” down his throat.
Andrew came home from that appointment and worked on nothing but G and K for the next 48 hours. Finally, he managed to choke out the word cat. He was shocked. I was shocked. His therapist was shocked when he showed up for his appointment the next week and said, “Hi … Katherine!”
I ran into Katherine last week, and it made me realize just how long ago Andrew’s struggle to be understood seems. Everyone understands him now. No one who meets Andrew today has any idea that he was ever hard to understand. Just a couple of weeks ago, his teacher was talking about his “remarkable vocabulary,” just casually mentioning that he really knows an awful lot of words for a second grader.
Next week, it will be the fourth anniversary of The Day The Boys Moved In. It’s an interesting combination of “I can’t believe it’s been four years,” and “Really? It’s only been four years?”
I guess it’s time to get going on the next four years. I’ll get out a big sand timer.
There’s this video making the rounds on facebook and twitter. It’s a gay couple’s wedding video, and it’s being shared because people are moved by the speech that one of the men’s fathers gives to his son and his new son-in-law. It’s actually pretty standard wedding fare, as far as I can see, but we don’t hear that often enough in the context of gay people getting married. I’m sure the fact that the dad is in the military is also part of its appeal — I guess people don’t expect a man in uniform to give a loving speech at his gay son’s wedding.
It’s not the speech that I’d like to talk about today, but a moment that comes just before that speech. You can watch the video below. The bit I’ll be discussing begins around the 4:45 mark, if you’d like to skip ahead.
Before I talk about the moment that made me uncomfortable, I feel like I should offer a disclaimer. This is a wedding video, and it’s very obvious the dad loves his son a great deal. I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing this family. I’m just using this video as an example because it has a moment that I can point out. The problem is pretty universal.
I was scared to tell my dad that I was gay. I was scared to come out to my dad. I was just so down, and he was like, “What’s wrong with you?” … And he looked at me and he said, “What did I do to fail you? What did I do to fail in raising you to trust me?” and I said, “Dad, what are you talking about?” and he says, “Why can’t you tell me that you’re gay?”
So let’s talk about the ways that straight parents fail their LGBT kids. Let’s talk about why a kid might be afraid to tell their parents that they’re gay. This applies to parents of kids anywhere on the sexual orientation or gender spectrum, for a couple of reasons. First, you may or may not know if your kid is LGBT, so you need to apply this advice regardless. Second, even if your kid is straight, if you want things to get better for LGBT kids in general, you need to create an environment where all kids learn that LGBT people are just as good as anyone else, and just as deserving of love, family, friends, community, and respect.
For the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to assume you’re a parent who would want your kid to feel safe enough to come out to you, and that you would want to know if you were falling short of that goal.
First, take a look at yourself.
Are LGBT people ever a topic of conversation in your home? When an LGBT rights issue is in the news, is it likely to be discussed? Think about the last time you said anything about LGBT people. What would the takeaway have been for your kid? Do you ever make jokes about LGBT people, even ironically? Do you feel comfortable discussing LGBT people, or does your voice get a little quieter, like when people are afraid to say “cancer?” A lot of LGBT kids are gender nonconforming. If your son asks for a doll, do you get a pained look on your face, even just for a moment? Did you dress him up in one of those awful “Ladies’ Man” t-shirts, sending the message that you’ve already decided what his sexual orientation is? Do you tell your daughter that there are certain events to which she simply has to wear a dress? Do you talk about your child’s future in a way that makes it sound like you’ve got a specific vision for what that future looks like? If you do, you’re setting the stage for your kid to feel like they will be disappointing you if they aren’t able to provide exactly that picture. If you treat being straight or conforming to gender roles as the default, you’re contributing to an environment where an LGBT child won’t be sure if they can trust you.
If you want your kid to feel safe telling you that they’re LGBT, show your kid that it is safe to tell you. Show them that you don’t have negative opinions of LGBT people. Don’t sit your kid down for an awkward chat and say, “It’s fine with me if you’re gay.” Show them. Show them by the way you live your life. If I asked your kid to tell me what you think about LGBT people, what would they say? If they wouldn’t be sure of their answer, you can be sure that they will not feel safe.
Next, take a look at your family.
No one’s family is perfect, and you can’t control what your family says and does. You can, however, control your response. If your kid hears negative messages about LGBT people at family gatherings, you need to be certain that your kid hears that you disagree with those messages, that you consider those messages to be unacceptable regardless of who is saying them, and that those messages are never again to be repeated in front of you or your kid. If you have a family member who cannot or will not agree to that request, you need to think very carefully about what message you are sending to your kid. Allowing your kid to be subjected to negative remarks about LGBT people — even if you are not the one making those remarks — will tell your kid that you are willing to compromise on issues as fundamental as who your kid is.
What about your friends?
When your kid looks at the people with whom you choose to spend your time, what do they see? Are there any LGBT people among your friends or family? If your kid is LGBT, and when they look around, they don’t see any other LGBT people, how lonely do you think they will feel? If they were to consider coming out, would they be the only LGBT person around? Kids look to adults for models of what adulthood is and what they can be. Without living, breathing LGBT people, your kid is left only with the extremely limited LGBT representation we see in the media. When you went to high school, was it a lot like the high school in Glee? For an LGBT kid, Glee might be the primary example they see of LGBT people. I can promise you that the LGBT characters on Glee are as divorced from the reality of LGBT people as the rest of the characters are divorced from the reality of everyday people.
I’m not saying that you should go out and try to find a new Gay Best Friend. Actually, please do not go out and try to find a new Gay Best Friend. But if you look at your social circle and it seems somehow limited, you need to consider that your social circle might, in fact, be limited. And you may need to ask yourself some difficult questions about why that is the case.
Everything that I said about families applies to your friends, perhaps even more so. You may not be able to choose your family, but you’ve chosen your friends, so their attitudes about LGBT people will tell your kid a great deal.
A limited view of LGBT people — making assumptions about who is or isn’t LGBT based on behavior or appearance, spending time speculating about who is or isn’t LGBT — will tell an LGBT kid that your view of them, your view of their life and their future, is limited.
Take a look at your community.
Do you bring your kid to a church? What does your church say about LGBT people? Are there LGBT people in your church community? If so, are the LGBT people in your church community full participants in all the same rituals and ceremonies as everyone else? Are LGBT members of your church community able to be married in your church? If you expect your kid to participate in a church community that doesn’t seem them as an equal to everyone else, you are telling your kid that you don’t view them as a equal to everyone else. A kid who knows that their parents don’t think LGBT people are worthy of equal treatment is going to be afraid of what will happen if they come out as LGBT.
What is the climate for LGBT kids in your school district? I can promise you that your LGBT middle school or high school student hears the word “gay” used as an insult, probably every day. It may not be directed at your kid, but it is part of their environment. What kind of protections are in place for LGBT students, who are more likely to be on the receiving end of bullying than their peers? Is there a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar organization at your local high school and middle school? You can work to improve the climate for LGBT kids in your school district before your kid is even there. Change takes time, so if you wait until your kid needs the resources of a Gay-Straight Alliance or a non-discrimination policy, you may be too late to provide them. If it takes a year to get the Gay-Straight Alliance up and running, that’s a year that your LGBT kid went without. If you want your kid’s school environment to be a safe one, you may need to make it a safe environment.
You can keep extending this examination outward, in ever larger circles. What is the climate for LGBT people in your town? In your state? What are the priorities of LGBT activists and organizations in your area? In what ways can you help those priorities become reality? Every hard-won victory will slowly improve conditions for LGBT kids.
But you have to start at home. Even if you can’t get your extended family to stop saying negative things about LGBT people, you can make sure your kid knows that you disagree. Even if bigots on the school committee block adoption of a non-discrimination policy, you can show your kid that you were fighting on the right side of a moral issue.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that even if you do all of these things, your LGBT kid still might not feel safe coming out to you. And it may not have anything to do with you. Coming out is a deeply personal decision, and it will happen in the context of your kid’s whole environment — family, friends, peers, community, media, and politics all play a role — and you are just one part of that puzzle. When your LGBT kid does decide to come out, don’t make it about you. It’s not.