It feels like just moments ago that I reflected on the things I wanted Grace to know, deep in her marrow, before she turned ten. But now it’s Whit who’s staring double digits in the face. In less than two months he’ll be ten, and there won’t be anyone with a single-digit age in our house anymore. Just as with Grace, I keep thinking about the values and truths I want Whit to know, the things I wish I could make him as certain of as he is of his own heartbeat.
Even as I think about and write these things down, I know that I can only do so much to impart them to him. I know that what I do is more important than what I say. I know that I had better have been modeling these themes already, since with 10 years under his belt he’s already picked up and internalized a lot of values from me.
With a desperate hope that I’ve done an okay job helping to exemplify and teach these messages, here are ten things I want my son to know before he turns ten.
1. Treat other people with respect. Women and men both. The headmistress of your school and the homeless man outside the subway station are both equally deserving of your kindness. You do this already, instinctively, but please, never stop.
2. Rowdiness and physical activity are both normal and fun. Rough-housing is okay. I know I sometimes shush you more than I should, because my personal preference is for quiet, but I’m working on that, because being physically active and even rambunctious is totally fine. There is a line, however, because violence is not okay. Learning where this line is is crucial.
3. No means no. Period. No matter who says it and in what context.
4. Don’t hide your sensitivity. You feel everything tremendously deeply: time’s passage, memory, wistfulness, love and loss. Don’t let the world convince you to stuff this down. You can be strong and feel a lot at the same time. In fact, feeling a lot makes you stronger. That’s true regardless of whether you’re a boy or a girl.
5. You can’t make another person happy, not me, not Dad, not Grace. Nobody. Furthermore that’s not your job. I know this, we all do, and I hope you always remember it. You are responsible for your own self and for the way you treat others, which can surely impact their moods. But nobody should ever make you feel responsible for their happiness. What makes me happy is knowing that you are thriving, challenged, enthusiastic, joyful, aware.
6. Pay attention to your life. There is so much to notice in the most every day moments. The other day you told me, before bed, that “the things you hate are the things you wish you had back.” I asked what you meant and you said, “well, like in Beginners, we had nap, and I didn’t like it, and now I would love to have rest time every day at school!” But then, after a few moments, you added, “well, at least I feel like I noticed it. That’s good, I guess.” And it is. I haven’t figured out how to stop time, but I do know that paying close attention to your experience rewards us with full days and rich memories.
7. Find your passion. It doesn’t matter what it is, but “I’m bored” isn’t something I want to hear. Ever. You are surrounded by interesting things to explore, learn about, and experience. I’ll support you in whatever you want to pursue, if it is hockey or coding or violin – or all three! – but you do need to find something that you want to throw yourself into.
8. Entitlement is the absolute worst. I am a strict mother and often feel badly about discipline or sharp language, but one thing I’ll always react to (and I’ll never regret doing so) is if you display even a whiff of entitlement or brattiness. You don’t do it often, and I don’t think it’s your natural orientation towards the world, but please always remember how immensely fortunate we are. It is an enormous privilege to live as we do every single day. Through small things like Sunday Night compliments, occasional volunteering, our Christmas Homeless Veteran relationship, and thank you notes I have tried to instill our family life with awareness of our great good fortune. That is, I believe, the best bulwark against entitlement there is.
9. Even if you don’t start something, you can be wrong. I think always of MLK’s line about how the silence of our friends hurts far more than the words of our enemies. The ringleader is at fault but so are those who go along with him. Please have the courage to stand up to the popular kids when circumstances arise when they’re doing the wrong thing. They haven’t yet, but I know they will.
10. I love you, no matter what. Messing up is a part of life. The point is learning to let go and start over. This I know I’ve modeled, probably too well: you are being raised by a mother who’s not afraid to show you her flaws and demonstrate failing, apologizing, and beginning again. I will always love you, even when you behave in ways I don’t love. But I also expect you to keep showing me that you know the point is to learn from our mistakes, recognize and acknowledge when we’re wrong, and begin again.