CLASS NOTE: This is the story I want to pod cast and publish. Word count: 2033
I had this idea, not that I was smarter than my son, but that I was at least as clever as him – and that simply was not true.
Dinner that night was a remix of most of our previous ones: paper plates, because who the hell likes to wash dishes? But real silverware—as plastic forks were just too redneck for me. As a kid growing up in Texas, I had once gone to a neighbor’s BBQ (that’s code for dinner party to you East Coasters), and there I saw a horde of sweaty, overweight men, with BBQ sauce dripping down their wife-beater tee shirts, or worse, their shirtless, hairy chests. When they were done ripping the meat off a rib and gnawing the bone, they pulled out flimsy, white plastic forks and attacked the coleslaw. As they spoke, food fell from of their mouths. They waved their white forks in the air between bites to help emphasize something they thought was humorous: “Y’all remember Keith? He los’ his damn leg las’ week to Vicky’s damn dog.” They would laugh, slaw dripping from their faces and off their forks. Pieces caught in their chest hair.
And that was the end of white, plastic dinnerware for me.
Using actual silverware, I placed dinner in front of my son, Hunter, who had somehow folded his long, thin legs into the dinning chair, filling it completely while he sat, with his face buried behind the orange case of his well-worn Kindle. He offered me only a few mental attention-units for what I was saying to him:
“Hunter! Please son, please – just eat your vegetables,” I begged.
Hunter said nothing, nor did he move to indicate he heard my plea. He knew I wasn’t done with my predictable “drink this and eat that” rant:
“After nine years you would think I could stop telling you to eat healthier and drink your water,” I continued, shaking my head in real exasperation. I attempted a full-on guilt-trip diplomacy tactic: “You know this stuff already. I want to teach you things you don’t know.”
He looked up briefly, but I could tell he was tuning out most of my well-worn rave. He had this adolescent look on his face that translated into: “If-I-look-at-her-she’ll-think-I’m-listening-so-she’ll-stop-talking. Okay-I-looked. She-saw-me. Now-back-to-my-book.”
He’d done this a lot over the past few months and I had come to hate it.
Smelling trouble, he glanced up again to inspect my continued silence. That glance told him I wasn’t buying it.
Looking back down at his book, Hunter calmly asked: “Mom, how do sharks make babies?” I paused, not sure if this was an honest to goodness home-school student to home-school teacher moment, or if he was just avoiding the broccoli on his plate.
He waited just a beat –waited for my silent deliberation on his intent behind the question mixed with a mental search for an actual answer. Once he saw I was down—deep— in contemplation, he tossed out: “Very carefully!” and smiled, applauding his own comic timing.
I had my answer: He was avoiding the broccoli.
“Okay kid! How about you put away the book and focus on the food not being eaten?”
In my pre-Hunter life, I had prided myself in my organizational prowess. I made my living as a project manager and corporate trainer. I was an Emergency Manager, trained to organize 150+ relief volunteers to respond to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or a few Texas Tornado aftermaths. I had created full organization charts, trained and placed new help, and personally ran smooth, on-the-ground operations in disastrous situations. Hell, I have a very large award hanging on my wall for my efforts at Hurricane Katrina; signatures of well wishes and “Thank-Yous” because of my brilliant leadership their and elsewhere. And yet—here I was, battling to get a 9-year-old to eat his damn broccoli. And what was worse, he seem to be winning.
He had two paper plates and one actual bowl in front of him, (paper bowls are worthless for anything heavier than oatmeal or popcorn). No food could touch the other, or it would be irreversibly contaminated. I think his aversion to food touching started when he was five years old. He had made some feeble mention about wanting to cook something in the kitchen. Instead of properly translating his intention: “You suck as a cook Mom, please— for God’s sake— let me cook something I can eat because I’m starving,” I took it the wrong way. My corporate trainer alter-ego kicked in and took over. I was thrilled that he had expressed interest in the Culinary Arts and began by plastering the milestone all over Facebook in typical mother egotistical brag. I promoted his career intent to be a Chef, and promptly enrolled him in “Young Chef’s Academy” to cultivate his newly found passion. Afterwards, I gave him free, unsupervised reign of the kitchen. After all, he had been trained to handle himself in a kitchen and I should respect that. Should I?
We called his first creation “Texas Hold’em Pancakes” featuring 52 different herbs and spices, and were guaranteed to make you fold after eating them. Bloody Milkshakes and Meatloaf Hands with dried scabs followed.
His father eventually cancelled the “free” and “unsupervised” parts of Hunter’s kitchen rein after his coffee pot had been used to brew a new flavor of coffee: garlic and onion.
Hunter’s enthusiasm waned for cooking after his father and I protested the fact we were now his sole food-tasters; he had stopped tasting his own creations early on. We eventually caught on to his practice of using creative recipes as weapons against any perceived injustices we may have inflicted on him during the week.
Never fully trusting that we wouldn’t exact our own revenge, he kept his own diet simple and food separate, allowing him to easily inspect for any foul play.
Now, we were resigned to fight battles over daily vegetable consumption, just as I was doing right then with my Eat Broccoli or Die! rant.
Hunter had a distaste for being boxed in, and sensing opportunity to maneuver in his favor, he said: “Mom, I’m perfectly capable of doing two things at once—three if you count breathing. Four if you count talking, while chewing and breathing and reading. So what’s the problem with reading my Kindle while I eat?” He tossed it out, challenging me to pick it up.
It was late, I was tired, and I lost it. “How ‘bout you focus on the damn broccoli and stop givin’ me sass.” My Texas accent had crept back in; it does that when I’m too tired to keep it suppressed—deep—where it belongs. There was no surer way to be pegged as a hick than to speak with a heavy Texas drawl. I was 8-years-old when I vowed never to sound like my mother, who was as Texan as they come. She was born in Fort Sam Houston on Texas Independence Day and eventually re-married a descent of the liberator himself and promptly produced my half-brother whom she named, “Liberty.”
Hunter put the book down and stared at his plate, looking for his next move. “There’s too many of them! Why do you have to give me soooo many?”
There were all of eight isolated small stalks of broccoli perched on his plate in a perfect formation. I could see the negotiation forming on his face. “I’ll eat three,” he tossed out to begin this well-worn deliberation tactic.
I had made the mistake of teaching my son a few actual corporate negotiation strategies. In my defense, I got the idea from a child psychologist who reasoned that unless a child knew how to negotiate, debate, and settle an argument with an adult, he would be left with crying and throwing fits as his only means of getting his way. As Hunter was three going on four at the time, and had a tendency to do just that, I decided to give it a try.
He had been so eager and attentive, soaking up my every word, that in a week-long period of teacher-inflated-ego-blindness I went too far, I taught him every tactic and debate maneuver I knew, leaving myself no new trick to use when I wanted my own way.
Oh, I was proud. For the very shortest of time I was so proud. I would show him off at the grocery store, pushing him down the aisles, debating aloud the pros and cons of “Puffed Rice” over “Frosted Flakes,” happy to discuss nutritional content, price variance and the marketing gimmicks that hook kids up to harmful foods, tangling them in pomp and flash.
I’d get home and marvel at how effective my teaching-skills had been, while shaking my head as I unpacked foods I have never dreamt of purchasing before: a box of the non-organic cereal because “If I don’t like the taste, I’m not going to eat it and you’ll waste your money;” or a bucket of fried chicken over my usual baked preference, as there are “only two legs on a baked chicken, and you get as many as you want in a bucket.” Of course, I despised legs—but Hunter loved them, and I did want him to eat.
My ego-bubble was forever deflated after I offered four viable and fun-filled venues for his 8th birthday party. I had always made a big thing out of his birthdays and spent way too much money on the occasion. For his first birthday, I had rented out the apartment’s entire pool house and thrown a fully decked out Finding Nemo themed swim party for close to 80 people. I like to argue it was because my parties had been so meager as a child, but in truth, I just liked throwing parties and showing off—another Texan trait I am plagued with.
After carefully laying out his venue options, accompanied by potential full-day agendas as any respectable former project manager would do, Hunter promptly asked: “How much are you planning to spend on my party?
I told him the basic budget I was aiming for and without missing beat, he replied, in all seriousness, “Forget the party this year Mom, just give me the cash and we’ll call it even.”
That was when it finally dawned on me, I had gone too far. Despite my perceived project goal of molding the best kid possible, no child needed to be taught what came naturally programmed in their DNA: how to get what their own way.
To this day, unless I am angry to the point of foaming at the mouth, he will launch into a negotiation until a “reasonable settlement” has been reached between us.
But at that point in our parley over broccoli consumption, there was no foam spewing from my mouth, so he felt he was still on semi-solid ground.
“No, you’ll eat them all, and you’ll do it right now!” Being in no mood to play his games, I had lost all of my patience. Never had I gotten such flack in the corporate world. My voice was rising in pitch, while I was lowering—considerably—in any sort of measurable sanity.
Sensing the dangerous shift in air, Hunter changed his strategy. In a completely deadpan, poker-faced voice he said, “Mom, let me guess, logic didn’t work for you so now you are trying out volume?”
He had nailed it and I couldn’t help myself; I burst out laughing. The moment lost its steam and I relaxed. He had a way of puncturing stress with his comic wisdom.
“Okay kid. Five pieces, right now, and that is my final offer.”
“Four?” Still testing to see if I would budge his way.
“Five!” I was not budging.
He gloated like a middle-eastern open air merchant having won his treasured haggle. After all, he got out of eating three pieces of baby-tree barf.
Of course, I had only put eight pieces on his plate knowing I would be lucky to get five of them eaten, but best keep that between us.
Tenacity –nine more years before I call this project “done.”