If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
— Yogi Berra
Setting the limit had worked. Nick knew he had to be ready to go to school by the designated time or he’d miss his ride. After 9:15, Nora and I would be unavailable to take him.
Nora and I weren’t bluffing. If Nick ran late, we were prepared to deal with his staying home for the day. Nick knew this.
All that first week, things went smoothly. But by the next week, Nick began to test the limit. That Tuesday, he waited until 9:10 before getting dressed.
“Bus is leaving in five minutes,” I said.
Nick threw on his clothes. We were out the door at 9:13.
The next day he cut it even closer. When we left at exactly 9:15, he hadn’t got his shoes on, but carried them to the car.
The real test came the next day. Nick had dragged his feet all morning. With a lot of resistance, he was dressed, sort of, by 9:15.
“Time to go, Nick.” I said.
“Nick, I don’t think there’s time to pee. You can pee in the car.”
We had a bottle in the car, for emergencies. Nick had used it before.
Nick’s face contorted.
“No! I really have to pee now!”
So this is it, I thought. This is the showdown. I took a deep breath.
“Nick. You can pee in the toilet if you really need to. But that means we’ll miss the deadline. Or you can leave now and pee in the car and go to school. It’s your choice.”
Suddenly he was crying. I knew these tears. They came, hot and fast, whenever he felt abandoned. Nick the lawyer, the limit-tester, was gone. He wasn’t making a reasoned argument. He was a kid in panic.
“Dada, no!” he said. It was a pure, animal cry, a plea for rescue. I felt, literally, as if I were torturing him.
I know that parenthood can come down to these junctures. I suppose you can call them “kick the bird out of the nest” moments.
Left to its own devices, the baby bird will stay in the nest. Its mother has to force it out. The baby bird squawks in protest and panic, falls, flaps its wings, and begins to fly. At least that’s the story.
But how does the bird mother know her progeny is ready to fly? How does she know it won’t just fall and fall, its wings flapping uselessly, until it hits the ground?
She knows by instinct, she does.
And how do I know?
I don’t. I’ve never known. Never for sure. Instead, I grope. I make the best guess I can, and I have to make the guess while watching my child writhe. It’s what parents do.
“I’m sorry, Nick.” I said.
“I hate you, dada!” he said.
He picked up his lunch box and stalked out the door. I followed with his backpack.
In the car, he strapped himself in.
“Here’s the bottle,” I said.
He was still crying.
“I don’t have to pee anymore,” he said.
. . .
You might also enjoy:
A brief scene from one of my favorite movies. It’s about larger things, but encourage me still it does.
Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
. . .
Childrens’ art credit: “Going to School.” Colored pencil. Caitilin L. Age 9,
Ontario, Canada. ©2011 The Natural Child Project. Used by permission.
Film clip: Frodo and Gandalf from Fellowship of the Ring
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