of swimming pools and young hellions

Last night, messaging with a friend who was recounting a babysitting “adventure” involving my then very-wee son drinking rubbing alcohol, I found myself relating:

The same child that stole the rubbing alcohol keeps his parents busy to this day: attempting to smoke cigarette butts off the ground, running down the block to enter a scary bar, going around the neighborhood asking for food and water and getting CPS called on me, and emerging from a bathroom at my restaurant workplace – pants down – to yell at my mom, “Grandma, GUESS what I found in my foreskin?”

Here’s the thing: these example of Nels’ behavior were just a few I could think of off the top of my head. This is Nels. Classic Nels. My father once looked at my son at twelve months old, just beginning walking, and said, “He’s going to be Hell On Wheels”. At the time I thought there’s no way my father could intuit this at such an early age; I also am relatively resistant to “labeling” a child – setting in stone some aspect of their nature can serve as a way to be lazy and not see who they really are.

Labeling is one thing. Beginning to know one’s child is another. And yes, Nels is Hell On Wheels to me sometimes.

Even a small thing like today – one incident of so many! – as the Boy and I exit the pool (preceding Sophie, who can stay in for a solid two hours at a stretch). As we approach the showers Nels walks with one foot in the grate of the large, cold lap pool. Nels can’t yet swim. He is also not supposed to enter this pool. By walking with ONE foot in the grate he is technically not doing anything “illegal” but he is causing me a minor headache. I am a tiny bit worried he’ll fall in (especially when, at the last possible step, he actually dips the foot and ankle into the water, unable to resist I suppose). I am also waiting for the lifeguard to bitch at me (always at me; not at him). I let him do it, though.

See, I would be okay allowing him to do this, even okay with him falling in the pool as well. And even though Nels would be frightened by a sudden submerging, he would also enjoy it (the look on his face of excitement, nervousness, and exhilaration at the tipping point of the balancing ankle experiment confirms this). His nature informs my interactions with him, often to my discomfort; he makes me see the world differently. I see many people expect kids to behave like “adults” – that is, observe rules that are boring and make little sense, do what authority tells you simply because they’re authority, and if you’re a child, trust other people’s arbitrary limits, not your own sense of capability.

This is why, when Nels runs away (which he managed to do before we left the Y) – or drinks my coffee or pisses in the playground at school or plants every seed he can get his hands on before we’re ready – there’s a right and a wrong way to handle it. Sometimes I screw up and get mad, yeah. Most times I patiently, patiently make the request: “Nels, would you please not use all of my spices to make a tea? They are expensive” (last week). He always listens to me when I make the request, and because he is not a sociopath (no, really – he’s not) I can see he considers my feelings. He won’t be a twelve year old pissing in a playground, I know that much.

Sometimes it’s like parenting a wee tornado. Like owning a monkey. Like attempting to order entropy. But I’ll tell you, I’m so glad I don’t hear myself speaking unkindly about him, the way I remember my parents doing so about me (selfish, asshole). “Oh, she was a brat at this age,” or, “You have one of each, boy and girl – which is worse?” (the latter examples I have heard in the last few days from parents I know). It’s not that I don’t think I have a right to being angry. It’s that I remember these slights, character attacks, and labels as a kid; they always felt indistinguishable from the removal of love.

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