Friday, April 4, 2008

When the values stick

So far, 2008 has been a tough year. Time-intensive transitions away from cribs and Pull-Ups have shaken the schedule, disciplinary challenges are keeping my fathering skills on the hard-line, colds and flu and strep have kept us away from the one serious illness in our extended family, and the relentless demands on time have all combined to keep me seriously off-balance.

If one thing keeps me going in these trying times, it's those things my son will say on occasion; words that can surprise, and amuse, and delight. As a bright, energetic and defiant three-and-a-half year old, he's at the point where he displays tremendous verbal abilities but near-zero judgment. Everything I tell him has to be repeated without end, and I wonder openly how many of those values I'm trying to teach him -- empathy, consideration, keeping in good humor -- are actually getting through.

So we're driving last week, and The Boy is thinking about his grandma, who's been down for the count all year with complications from heart surgery. She's been in and out of the hospital since January, receiving everything from intravenous antibiotics to morphine drips, and doesn't seem to be on her way to recovery. The one thing that seems to help her is an occasional phone conversation with The Boy, which brightens her day and gets him thinking.

"Is Grandma back in the hospital?" he asked at the end of one call.

"Yes," I told him.

"Is she healing up?" he asked.

Having no answer, I had to fudge. "Well, the doctors still don't know quite what's wrong," I told him. "The doctors are trying to figure it out, so they can help her get better."

The Boy thought for a moment. Then, as he reached his solution, The Boy's confident little smile came out.

"Grandma should go see my doctor," he pronounced proudly, sticking his index finger in the air to emphasize his point. "My doctor does a good job."

Wow, I thought. Actual empathy. Something got through.

A week later he's on the potty, straining away while I -- thanks to his demand of privacy -- monitor from some distance down the hallway. As he grunts, I wonder how long I should let it go before checking in.

He's been doing well on his potty efforts lately, though. So I decide a verbal check-in is sufficient.

"How's it going in there, Buddy?" I ask from my post down the hallway.

No answer.

"Buddy," I ask, "is everything okay in there?"

"Leave me alone, Dad," he says, taking a break and breathing hard.

"Are you okay?" I ask, concerned.

As a dad, I spend day after day trying to teach my son the ways of the world. Between lessons and repetition, discipline and love, endless discussions of right and wrong, of people and behavior, and even the occasional political primer, one never knows what's sticking and what's not.

"LEAVE ME ALONE, DAD!" he shouts. "I'm trying to push Dick Cheney out of my butt!"

When my laughter subsided, I realized something: You never know exactly when you'll hear an instilled value confirmed.