I have three kids. With three very different personalities. My 10-year-old boy is my most “challenging” one.
“Typical middle child,” the self-proclaimed experts crow. No. Sorry. He was like that from the moment he was born. (I will grant that God knew he would one day end up the middle child and so designed accordingly, but, trust me, he came hard-wired that way.) I could tell the difference at the bris. My first son cried because he was in pain. My second one cried because he was angry.
He’s mellowed a bit since that eighth day. But, still, nothing comes easy with this one. Everything has the potential to turn into a philosophical, environmental and theological argument at the drop of a hat.
Last weekend, he was told to clean his room. No kid likes cleaning his or her room. My 14-year-old rebelled by procrastinating and taking an impromptu nap. My 7-year-old simply did a half-assed job and stuck pretty much everything under her bed. My 10-year-old went the debate route.
Traditionally, my kids know that when it comes to cleaning criteria, Daddy is the softer touch. If it were up to me, I’d simply march into their room with several garbage bags, indiscriminately snatch up the waves of clutter and toss them into the trash. I’ve done it enough that they realize I’m not bluffing.
This time, however, for reasons known only to him (a common theme with anything he does), my son decided to appeal his sentence to me. He pointed out that the bulk of the mess in their room belonged to his sister, not to him.
I agreed that this was, in fact, true. Then I gave him a stern lecture about teamwork and cooperation and being part of a family, pointing out, “Do I cook dinner just for myself? Does Daddy do only his laundry? Does your brother wash only his own dishes?”
He conceded that was not the case and returned to his room, where he helped his sister shove even more of her things under the bed.
I thought we were done.
We were not even close to done.
Next, my husband assigned him to dust, while his little sister emptied the wastepaper baskets and his older brother packed them up with the rest of the garbage to take to our building’s basement.
My middle son returned, once again, to complain. I was about to perform a reprise of my earlier “All for one and one for all” speech, when he cut me off to explain he wasn’t complaining about the unfairness of his assignment. He was objecting to its futility.
“What is the point of dusting, if more dust is just going to come?”
“Do you know what dust turns into?” I asked him.
“Planets,” he deadpanned. (It is an indicator of how his mind works that I honestly don’t know if he was being flip or serious. This is a boy developing his own unifying theory of light because he doesn’t accept the whole “both a particle and a wave” thing.)
“Dirt,” I corrected. “Dust turns into dirt. We don’t want a dirty house.”
“But, when I dust, it all flies up and makes everybody sneeze and activates everybody’s allergies. It’s better to just leave it alone so it doesn’t bother anyone.”
“No. It’s not. You’re wrong.”
“Why not?” His eyes filled with tears. It is another indicator of how his mind works that being told a theory he finds infinitely logical is, in fact, flawed, drives my son to tears.
I gave him yet another lecture, this time about the fallacy of constructing an argument on false premises and the difference between a right answer and a correct one. That made him cry even harder.
“Just do it!” My husband bellowed from another room.
“Why is Daddy so mean?” My son sobbed.
I sighed. I decided to fight fire with…
I asked, “What is the only function of a biological organism?”
“To reproduce,” he answered promptly.
“And what is the only means for Daddy’s genes to reproduce?”
“If I reproduce. Well, one of us,” he indicated his brother and sister.
“That’s why Daddy is so mean,” I told him the absolute truth. “Daddy believes his job is to turn you into a competent human being who can go out into the world and survive long enough to reproduce.”
“By making me clean my room?” My son asked in disbelief.
“Daddy thinks it’s critical to learn how to do your best at any task you’re assigned–no matter how menial–and yes, he uses cleaning to teach you that. It’s very important to him. By the way,” I added. “Girls really want to reproduce with men who are very, very good at cleaning. Take my word for that one.” (I’m not kidding.)
“Well, what if I don’t want to reproduce?” My son crossed his arms, the “so there, what do you have to say about that?” portion of his statement implied.
“Then how are the Jewish people supposed to continue?” I challenged. “If every Jew decided to stop having children, what would happen to us?”
“There won’t be anymore Jews if I don’t clean my room?” My son, a fan of Mr. Spock from “Star Trek,” has been working on learning to raise his eyebrow. He didn’t quite manage it here, but his tone conveyed the appropriate sentiment.
“Yes,” I deadpanned in much the same way he had earlier with his answer of “Planets.” “You not cleaning your room will lead to your not becoming the sort of man that women want to reproduce with and, before you know it, no more Jews.”
“I see….” He narrowed his eyes.
“Go clean your room,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“Thank you for contributing to Jewish continuity,” I called after him.
He didn’t answer back.
There’s a first….