He came up the stairs, looking like a cross between a drowned kitten and a frog: wet hair, clinging shirt, useless green umbrella and matching boots (with sloshy feet inside).
I smiled at him. He sighed.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, “I better …”
His father nodded.
I’ve heard it before.
“You better come right now!” “You better sit down quietly!” “You better not hit your brother!” “You better listen to the babysitter!” “You better not forget your homework again!” “You better not get this floor wet …”
You better? Better how?
More like “your life will be much worse, unless …”
I swallowed my own sigh. I don’t abide much by the “you better” style of communication. The dad was probably parroting the coded-directions of his own upbringing, spurred by habit, rigid expectation, his own fatigue.
“Looks like you two got caught in the downpour,” I smiled, took their umbrellas, and offered towels, a mat to put their footwear on, a plastic bag for wet things, a pair of dry socks for the boy. The minutia of a rainy day.
“He kept goofing around,” the dad grumbled. He pointed at the drenched boy in accusation, though he was only marginally less wet than his son (and had a bigger umbrella!). The father patted his arms dry, patted his son’s hair. He seemed embarrassed and glared at the errant rain drops on the floor as if they were proof of his son’s weathery misdemeanor.
“I ran because I didn’t want to get wet!” the boy retorted, eyes glistening.
“Sometimes there’s not much one can do to stay dry,” I soothed, and lifted the bag of extra child-size socks to emphasize my point. “It is raining hard and it is windy, too, so the umbrella probably can’t do much. I’d gotten soaked. Had to change.” I pointed at my clothing. “Not what I had on earlier.”
The boy threw a vindicated glance toward his dad.
“You better not give me any sass,” the parent reflexed.
The boy’s face darkened.
“You know what I think is better?” I interjected. “For all of us to come sit down and get dry and comfy …” I gestured toward the couch for the father to sit on, for the boy to take his seat by the table.
I wondered if the father was aware of just how alike his own expression was to the boy’s: a mix of combative, deferential, dejected and relieved.
The rest of the session went smoothly. By the end of it, the boy’s curls bounced back right along with his spirits. His dad’s mood improved, too, nourished in equal parts by the rain easing and the nap he’d managed to sneak in while his son and I worked.
They left calmly enough, but I’ll have to make time to speak with the parent. We spoke before on things that need discussing not in the child’s presence. I know the father means well. He’d told me he hadn’t had a close relationship with his parents. He had grown up with the threat (and frequent bite) of a switch, and he’d vowed to not repeat it. He does not raise a hand to the boy. This father wants better – the real better, not the threatened one – for his son. He’d told me he wishes for his son to be able to come to him with anything, interests or worries. Yet for now this parent’s very way of communicating stifles the possibility. He gets tripped by his own memories of what parental language ‘should be’ like. Maybe he knows no other way to exert control over a growing and often opinionated boy.
We’ll have a talk. The dad and I.
I know he wants better for the both of them.
“You better” is hardly is the better way.
For The Daily Post