I poisoned myself yesterday afternoon, partaking in an overambitious pitcher of sangria concocted from strawberries, rosé wine, and basil-infused gin. “That looks huge,” said Lady V. But my eyes were bigger than my liver, and I responded, “Half of it is ice.” I should probably mention that I’m Asian and not a big drinker, thus you could set me on fire with a sip of wine spritzer. We had a delightful time downing the whole jug with a tapas lunch. The rest of the afternoon was lovely as well: I did a bit of productive shopping and cleaned my taekwondo dojang, where the wooden floors swam pleasantly under the vacuum. The headache began when I attended my son Max’s evening concert, but seemed to go away by the time I bid him and my ex adieu and came home to work. However, when I sat at my computer, the screen started shooting daggers into my eye sockets and I was suddenly suffering a spectacular hangover. Thankfully, Max was with his dad until Saturday, so that I didn’t have to make up excuses for my migraine and why I couldn’t come into the light.
In explaining alcohol to a nine-year-old, I want to teach him that 1) alcohol is for adults, and 2) it is acceptable to drink in moderation and bad to drink in excess. However, I wonder if adults sometimes just come off as hypocrites when we tsk-tsk other people’s drunken behavior and then gather at a party with families, downing wine—which the kids know they are not supposed to touch—and end up talking and laughing much too loudly and obnoxiously. If the kids have tasted alcohol, they probably enjoyed it as much as they’d enjoy a worm squiggling on their tongue. They must wonder: if alcohol is so deadly as to make a person do embarrassingly stupid things and even tragically stupid things, then why mess with it at all?—it doesn’t even taste good.
Max has this little stuffed pink unicorn from Christmas named Fluffy. It’s a Beanie Boo which means it has a swollen head with freakishly large eyes. When my friend stopped by for a visit one night, Fluffy popped up at the dinner table and did a little welcome dance for her.
“Gaaah!” said my friend. “He looks stoned!” If you haven’t guessed, she doesn’t have children.
“What’s stoned?” asked Max.
“It’s when somebody takes drugs,” I explained, wondering if this was appropriate material for a nine-year-old. “They get all out of it and stupid.”
This amused Max. “Like being drunk!” And he made his unicorn dance over to my friend’s beer and slurp it from the top of the bottle. Fluffy got loopy and proceeded to stumble about the table, then vomit.
So now my son has a pink fuzzy unicorn with a drinking problem. The same friend came over the following day and described how her coworker had come to work with a hangover. “He went partying with the unicorn last night,” she said. Max overheard our conversation and all three of us found the phrase hilarious. I feel a little inappropriate laughing about alcohol abuse with a fourth grader, even if it is manifested in a creature of fantasy. Should I be afraid that Max’s current mentality, Drinking in excess is stupid, will turn into Drinking in excess is fun? Should I stop letting the unicorn raid the liquor cabinet and put him into rehab?
Parents are supposed to be good role models for their children. We often fall short. Damn that human imperfection. I get scolded by Max for crossing the street against the light and for swearing. I’m lucky he hasn’t blindly followed my example. I’m sure those good habits will wear off in middle school.
Isn’t it funny how you hear the parents’ voices coming out of a child? I once tried persuading Max’s second-grade friend to do another 5 minutes of homework while Max finished his own assignment. The second-grader went from transparent excuses, to ignoring me in order to go play, to finally huffing, “Stop wasting my time!” I was taken aback hearing such rudeness from a seven-year old, before realizing I was probably hearing his mother being channeled through his mouth.
Another one of Max’s friends, refers to herself as fat, though she could disappear behind a knitting needle. She asked a classmate, “Do these jeans make my butt look big?” The girl is ten. “My legs are fat.” I’ve even heard preschool boys go on about the fat calories in different foods. Those little ears are so sharp and their brains suck up every word we utter, even the words they seem to ignore. I cringe when I hear racial slurs erupting from the mouths of children just past toddlerhood. When young adults commit violent crimes, is part of the reason because our media is so flooded with violent images that they have become desensitized to them? Are they emulating glamorized acts of brutality?
We are a mix of DNA, the earth that shifts beneath our feet, and the ghosts of voices collectively yammering in our heads. But beyond biology, personal history, and environment is free will. Children are more than the people who raise them. Eventually kids realize that their caregivers are fallible and that the word of the parent is not the end all, be all. The best thing I can do as a mother is help my child grow a strong moral spine that will hold him as his peers push at him in all directions, a spine that will eventually hold him even as I push at him. I want him to go beyond my requests of do as I do, beyond do as I say. Ultimately I want him to be able to make his own judgement, and for that judgement to be solid. I want to be able to trust him. Most important, I want Max to be able to trust himself.