Kai’s teacher has been making references to the fact that Kai is “getting older,” by which she means he is beginning to make some changes, these changes being primarily a marked increase in sullen defiance and a tendency toward eye-rolling. He ripped up his paper in health class right in front of the teacher. He says the word, “Fine,” in response to being told what to do at school with as much passive-aggressive disgust as any teenager.
We haven’t seen this so much at home. Or maybe since he has fought me tooth-and-nail over Every. Little. Thing. for the whole of his life that a day his teacher calls him defiant is just a day I’d call Thursday. But there have been some developments around here that signal some of the changes she’s talking about, such as his not wanting me to see him naked, or giggling at the word, “underwear.” Just yesterday he was watching something on YouTube and exclaimed, “What the hell?” and then looked at me and apologized, which is the very beginnings of the possibility that one day he might actually have a filter.
But then there is, apparently, a flip-side to these changes. Some of them are good. Astonishing, really.
Last week I picked out the coat I wanted him to wear for his field trip.
“Not that one,” he said, reaching for a lighter one.
“Kai, you’re going to be outside all day. You need a warm coat.”
He zipped up the one he’d chosen and said, calmly as can be, “Mommy, you always make me wear that coat and I’m always too hot and it just goes in my backpack. This one is fine.”
The 1-2-3 count about to form on my tongue, the one he always obeys because he knows that I am serious. But with great effort I shook off the impulse, the muscle memory of doing all of the deciding for him, this boy who seemed to want to decide himself if he’s too hot in one coat vs. another. He seemed so reasonable, so capable in that moment that I didn’t press him, even if I was worried he’d be cold all day.
“Okay,” I said, putting the heavy coat back into the closet. “I like the way you used your words.”
Pictures from the field trip to the zoo that day show Kai clowning around with his friends, no longer even wearing the lighter jacket in the weak May sunshine. He had been completely right, and had made me understand that in tiny (very tiny), incremental steps, I am going to need to learn how to let him go.
There are some ways in which Kai is like a toddler. His lack of impulse control makes him unpredictable. He disappears, wanders, damages things. I asked our neurologist if any of the ADHD medications had a component to address this, and he said no, that I would have to continue to watch Kai oh, so closely, that he still absolutely need his paraprofessional at school.
But the coat incident started the ball rolling for me to try to give him some more leeway. He’s been asking to do some chores to earn things he wants. Chores are problematic around the house partially because it makes Scott nuts when, say, the dishwasher is loaded incorrectly or there’s any water on the floor ever, and partially because anything that I trusted Kai to do (clean the nose-prints on the back door, for example) required effort on my part to remind him. Finally, I landed on the perfect chore.
“Kai,” I said, “you are now in charge of cleaning up the dog poop.”
He let out a moan of disgust. “Why can’t I mow the lawn?”
“Because you have to pick up the poop before you mow it anyway.”
He was quiet for a few moments.
“This is the chore I want you to do, Kai.”
And so I went outside with him, armed with poop bags, and showed him how to hunt for dog turds, carefully folding the bags back on themselves so as not to get poop on his hands.
“This poop smells,” he said by way of complaint, but he stayed doggedly with it. (See what I did there?)
When we were done we had several bags filled with poop that I planned to take out to the alley next time I left the house.
“Would it be extra helpful for me to put these in the garbage?” Kai asked.
I stared at him. When in this life has he ever been extra helpful?
“Yes,” I said at last. “Take them out to the alley and put them in a black garbage can.”
I had the thought that I should go out there with him, and decided instead to see if he could do it without me micromanaging the entire process—opening the garage door, reminding him to look both ways in the alley, of where the proper garbage can was. I went inside and stood in the kitchen window, which faces the garage window, through which I could see first the door going up, then Kai’s baseball-capped head approaching the alley. I saw him look around. I saw him head toward the recycling bins. I started loading the dishwasher, thinking that I would just move the poop later, when Kai came bursting in.
“I did it!” he said, clearly pleased. “I wasn’t sure which black garbage can so I went across the alley and used that one.”
I praised him lavishly and checked off his chore chart with great flourish.
“Now can I mow the lawn?” he asked.
Last night I advised kai that he needed a bath, noting the dirt under his fingernails.
“You also need your nails cut,” I said.
I asked him to start his bathwater, telling him I’d be up later for the nails, but got distracted by Ryan wanting a bedtime story and missed my window when Kai was captive in the bathtub.
I found the nail clippers and went downstairs, where Kai was watching YouTube videos on Minecraft.
“Let’s cut those nails,” I said to him, grabbing a hand.
And then I looked closer.
All of his nails were neatly trimmed.
“I already did it,” he said.
“You did?” I asked, incredulous. He usually fights me until I threaten to take away his iPad, but he’d cut his own nails, by himself and without any nagging or reminding.
Stunned, I resisted the urge to inspect the job he’d done, and instead told him that I was really, really proud of him.
“How’d you get to be so big?” I asked. He grinned at me.
And then he asked me to make him some popcorn, get him some ice water, things that, God help me, he could do himself.
And I reminded him as such, and retired to the living room with a glass of wine.