Last night, after getting home from our favorite Chinese restaurant (we’re having latkes with friends tomorrow night), I read my two sons “What is Hanukkah?” by Harriet Ziefert. It’s a fairly simple and heartwarming tale, as far as Hanukkah kiddie lit goes: Judah Maccabee and his band of Jews defeat the mean King Antiochus and his mighty army, who wanted the Jews to stop worshipping one god. The Maccabees prevail, rebuild their temple and miraculously find a menorah with oil that burns for eight nights. They stand up for their beliefs, they triumph and they endure.
While my toddler pawed at the pages, my 8-year-old was asking about different gods and why some people try to persuade others to act just like them.
“Why can’t each person just do what they want?” he asked.
I concocted a hasty but somewhat articulate response that involved insecurity and limited world views, and emphasized to him that it’s very important to stand up for your own beliefs and not let others push you around.
But maybe Andy could teach me. After he went to bed, I stopped to think back on a school pickup a few weeks ago. Like every annoying mom the world over, I pepper him with questions about his day: how was school, what did you learn, did you eat your lunch, how was recess, et cetera.
Usually, Andy plays football at recess. But on this particular day, he got tired playing because he felt that he wasn’t getting the ball. Instead of pouting, he walked away from the game and opted to play basketball by himself until some other kids joined him. Confident. Smart. Just what every parent wants…right?
When I heard this, I have to admit: I did that horrible parenting knee-jerk response and projected. I let my own underlying childhood woes dictate my response. I pulled into the driveway and (nonchalantly! breezily!) asked him why he didn’t want to play football. I worried that he was somehow being left out, or not mixing in, or somehow running afoul of the group. My primal instinct was to urge him to conform, to blend, to wrap himself in the comforting cloak of the crowd. I was picturing myself in second grade, longing to be asked to play four square, hiding my glasses in my backpack, hoping to snag a spot at the cool kids’ lunch table.
My motivation came from an honest place: I didn’t want him to feel ostracized. I still remember how much it hurt to get left out of a game. I spent most of my elementary and junior high years conforming, making sure I’d never feel the sting of that kind of isolation again. I didn’t want him to go through the same thing.
“Don’t you want to play football? You aren’t getting teased, right?” I asked.
Andy looked at me like I had four heads.
“Um, no. I just do what I like to do,” he said. So mature!
“Of course! That’s great!” I chirped drily, imagining him sulking on the sidelines at recess. I could almost feel my brown plastic glasses circa 1987 sliding down my nose once more.
At some point, I think all parents have baggage that does battle with our own mature good sense. We bring our own history into our parenting. You see it in sports all the time: the dad who has to live out his own failed athletic dreams through his kid or the stage mom who forces her clumsy child into ballet until she tumbles off the stage. Most of the time, we resist those impulses. But sometimes we fail. And, that night, I almost failed. I had to disentangle cool, nonchalant Andy from the mom who once maintained a list in elementary school: “How To Become A Cooler Person.” (My first goal was to “get tan legs.” Don’t ask.)
I have long since passed the point where I aspire to generic coolness. I am a grown woman who watches “Murder, She Wrote” at night and enjoys playing YouTube clips of British invasion pop bands. I am who I am. Most days, I’m fine with that. But there will always be a small part of me that harbors the impulses of a second-grader desperate to fit in.
Anyway, the next day, I picked him up at school and (breezily! nonchalantly!) asked him how his day went. He volunteered that he played football again and even got the ball. I won’t lie: I was relieved. I also didn’t make a big deal out of it. I just kept driving.
Rereading the Hanukkah book, though, I was reminded of Andy’s words. No, a playground football game is not a pogrom. But on this tiny scale, I hope he continues to stand up for who he is. I think he will. He is much wiser than I am, and far more confident than I was at his age. Part of this might simply be part of being a boy, less privy to the emotional ups and downs and fickle friendships of girls. But part of it is simply that he knows who he is and doesn’t waver. Now my job is to make sure his candle keeps burning.