On one of the first days of summer vacation, my sister called. She had known the boys had swimming lessons in the morning and was wondering what they did in the afternoon.
“They bickered,” I said.
Maureen found this funny, partly because she doesn’t have kids, partly because I made it sound like it was an actual activity. Time to swim, then lunchtime, followed by a period of incessant bickering.
Now, a month later, we are in the middle of summer and while the boys still bicker occasionally, it doesn’t seem to be the full-time sport it was in early June.
If the first week of school is takeoff, the first week of vacation after the school year is reentry. For astronauts, reentry is the most dangerous time. As they pass from space into the atmosphere, the temperature outside their spacecraft can reach three thousand degrees. Without the proper equipment and the correct maneuvers before and during reentry, they will perish.
Summer vacation means reentry into the family. No longer is everything in the boys’ world set up exactly for their age and developmental level. For six-year-old Liam, reentry heat is turned on as he tries to keep up with his brother, 3 years older. For Jacob, the heat comes through frustration with a little brother who asks too many questions and doesn’t always understand everything on the first try. And both of them need to deal with the thousand-degree toddler, who is apt to scribble on their pictures, take apart their Lego creations and generally pull away Mom and Dad’s attention.
To avoid what felt like an inevitable crash and burn, I found myself giving my boys the equivalent of the ceramic tiles put on the outside of the spaceship to resist the heat. For the first part of the space age, scientists didn’t think reentry without burning was possible. Because of this, they didn’t even man the first flights. As they learned more about how to manage the reentry process, they developed spacecrafts that were better and better able to handle the heat. I’m sure each parent has developed his or her own “tiles” that help with reentry and cut down on bickering. My tiles can be boiled down to three sentences. The first week of vacation, I found myself saying each several times a day. Now, it seems that the boys actually internalized them somewhat, and I don’t need to say them as often:
Tile 1: “Find something he’s saying that you agree with and talk about that.” This is especially aimed at 10-year-old Jacob. Too often, Liam would make a statement about something, and Jacob would find the one thing about it that was incorrect and point it out. To prevent a conversation from escalating to an argument over small points, Jacob needed to see that the object of conversing wasn’t to find every error in what Liam was saying. His job was to find Liam’s main point and build on that, rather than tear down a smaller point.
Tile 2: “No one can talk until the next stop light.” When it seemed that every car ride was a trip to Bickerfest, I began instituting whole blocks of silence when I heard an argument was starting. At the stoplight, they could talk again, but if the talk goes back to the same old argument, then it’s more silence until another landmark. They soon learned that if they have any hope of doing anything in the car besides listening to NPR, they needed to talk civilly to each other.
Tile 3: “You’re arguing over the computer? You’re lucky to have a computer.” This is my social justice tile. I noticed that a lot of the things the boys argued over wouldn’t even be available to the average kid in a third-world country. Early in the summer, I explained (and re-explained) why kids in another place would be so happy to take turns with whatever my boys both wanted to use at once. I found I could apply the lesson to just about any material thing. “Do you know how lucky you are to have a ___?” (basketball, turn to choose the TV show, bike.) I’m not sure if they now have internalized this message or just don’t want me to start the third-world lecture again, since it does tend to be long. Regardless, they are not fighting as much over objects.
I have been able to write this whole essay as the boys played whiffle ball in the front yard. The first week of summer, I wouldn’t have been able to get through the first paragraph.
The reentry is successful, Houston.
And I’m going to enjoy it until we need to once again prepare for takeoff.