back to archives index


Coping with a 7-year-old’s righteousness


Being a parent has transformed me like no other experience. I am more vulnerable, more giving, more challenged and more aware of my limitations than ever before.

I organize the daily lives of three people, interpreting verbal and nonverbal communication of varying levels of intelligibility, sensing whose underwear drawers are near depletion and somehow having learned to decipher the qualitative difference between two kinds of silences -- one means someone has a) procured the nail polish from the highest shelf of the hall closet, b) is taking scissors to her own or her sister’s hair or c) is eating cat food; the other means they’re all miraculously in their rooms reading books.

I have a goofy image in my head of George Jetson of cartoon fame yelling to his wife, “Jane, stop this crazy thing!” as his treadmill speeds up. I sometimes wish I could yell for someone to stop -- or at least slow -- the pace.

My son, my firstborn, has reached what for purposes of sacramental initiation used to be deemed the “age of reason.” That is to say, he is all of 7 years old. Now that the extraordinary physical and cognitive growth of babyhood and early childhood has taken place, the emotional and social growth of the school years begins.

This is where some of the real hurts take place, the ones he’ll remember for a lifetime, the ones you can’t kiss and make better. There is a saying that the two things we need to give our children are roots and wings. His roots are now firmly in place, nurtured by faithful and consistent parenting through these early years. The next phase seems more daunting.

He is beginning to be able to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to develop a sense of personal ethics and to think about some of the big issues. His imagination takes him places he doesn’t necessarily want to go -- he came to me crying last night just after he’d gone to bed because he had some scary thoughts about death.

We don’t shy away from hard, abstract topics like exploitation. He thinks banks are evil because they have the power to repossess people’s homes if they can’t pay their mortgages, and I’ve tried to explain how check-cashing businesses take advantage of people who don’t have bank accounts. He is learning right from wrong, in both the societal and the personal contexts.

One way this gets manifested is in his peer relationships. He has identified a group of boys in his class who are “cool.” For my son, “cool” is not good. It means that they tend to behave in stereotypically boyish ways: They roughhouse, have a hard time sitting still, are into sports and sports teams and players, and sometimes find their power in their ability to put others down. (My son is not above this kind of tyranny -- his little sisters will attest to that. But sibling relationships have their own complex code of ethics.) He feels like an outsider, though there are a few other boys more like him in the class.

The “coolness factor” is less of an issue as far as girls are concerned. He seems more comfortable with girls. Yet while he seems intimidated by certain boys, he’s not afraid to challenge their authority in the face of playground injustice. I was so pleased when his teacher told me last year that my son had the guts to stand up to some boys who told a group of girls they couldn’t play “because they’re girls.”

When it comes to adults’ behavior, he is guileless enough to pull off perfect righteousness; he chides me when I trespass against the ethical code he’s taken to heart. For example, the other day his youngest sister took a flying leap off a chair before I could catch her. I exclaimed, “Oh, God! Don’t do that!” My son’s big eyes soulfully reproached me as he said, “Mom, you’re not supposed to say ‘Oh, G-o-d.’ ”

One late evening during an intergenerational family parlor game, things got a bit heated and some of the grown-ups used a few mild expletives. After the round, my overtired little boy said with tears in his eyes, “I don’t want to play any more. They’re saying bad words.”

His admonitions are both humbling and hard to swallow. Though we are proud he has such high standards and proud of the sensitive, gentle, kind boy he is, there are times when his father and I want to say, “Lighten up, kid.” I believe part of moral maturity is learning tolerance for imperfection or being willing to find the saint in the sinner.

In the meantime, as he wends his way on the path to adulthood, I hope he will find strength and courage to continue to honor his innate sense of right and wrong, even if it means being the outsider. I hope he will learn to tolerate and forgive others’ weaknesses. I hope he will acknowledge his own limitations without letting them stop him from trying new things and taking necessary risks.

I pray his fledgling wings will one day take him soaring.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 1998