Adoption Stories

Published on March 10th, 2015 | by Eve



My son is almost three. Two years and ten months. But I am pretty sure he’s already become what I’ve heard referred to as a “threenager.” Like a teenager, small children hold the fierce need for independence even in the face of things they aren’t yet old enough to do or understand.


It’s driving my spouse crazy. We always said when we got to the teenage years, I’d be in charge, while she would manage during the infant and toddler years. I worked with teenagers, I love teenagers. At least, I do when I get to send them home at the end of the day. She’s a nanny, almost always with infants and toddlers. But if “teenage years” includes “threenager” and also the period between age thirteen and eighteen, I think I got the raw end of that deal.

This morning, my son insisted on trying to zip up his own coat. I let him. After letting him struggle for a few seconds with a zipper that wasn’t aligned properly, I offered to help. He refused. I backed off. He tried some more. I offered tips. He eventually gave up and I showed him how to do it, narrating my actions. In a microcosm, this captures in inefficiency and willfulness of threenagers.


bossing his friend around

It seems that threenagers also start to experiment with aggression when they are frustrated. We’ve been using the “time in” to stop, take a break, and be very clear that it’s never OK to hit. It’s so easy to get into power struggles at this age, because we as adults have our own agenda and timeframe for doing things. Toddlers have little reason to want to comply. They may have very different agendas. It’s better when we can try and let go of the time pressure and gently help them find motivation, so we eventually get the same place together. It’s really not the end of the world if he’s late for day care (unless I have a 9 AM appointment!) but the thought of seeing friends he likes there, or watching Peppa Pig at the bus stop, will eventually convince him to move it along. I’m lucky that I have a flexible enough schedule that I can have a buffer hour in the morning between when I try to get to work and when I actually need to be at work. I realize not everyone is so lucky.

Here’s where it gets tricky. I’m white, my spouse is white. My son is black. When I glimpse a vision of the thirteen-year-old he will become, I think about what I’ve come to understand about the current crisis in this country regarding young black teenagers. In order to successfully nurture a child’s independence and problem-solving skills, you have to let them try and fail. You have to let them exert control whenever it’s feasible, while still getting them to do what they need to do. We instituted “naked dance” in order to satisfy my son’s need to be naked before getting into pajamas each night, and it’s helped to have a transition into bedtime. We don’t shut down his need to express his frustration when he doesn’t get his way, but we teach him to express his frustration safely.


Very determined to climb the hippo

But in the outside world, young black men often aren’t given the luxury to exert some control, because the consequences of standing up to authority can be lethal – just ask the families of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and hundreds others just in the last year. Michael Brown was murdered for teenage bravado. If a white teenager had behaved the way he did, I’m quite sure he would never have been perceived as a menace (or a “demon” in Darren Wilson’s words). Black children are routinely punished more harshly by schools (even in preschool!) for far less aggressive behavior than white children. Every parent of a black teenager knows about the painful conversation they have to have with their sons at some point about how to not antagonize situations with the police. Don’t argue, even if you’re in the right. Keep your hands up. Be subservient. Press charges later, if your rights have been violated, but get through the encounter safely first. What is needed to survive in a racist society for young black teenagers is completely at odds with what is needed to grown into independent, free thinking human beings.

My son is only a toddler at this point. When he asserts his willfulness at restaurants people think it’s cute. But some day, traditional wisdom says that he’s going to need to learn to hold two opposing ideas at once, and it will be my job to teach him how to do this. He has to learn that he is his own person with his own needs and wants, no less important than anyone else’s, and yet he lives in a racist society that will sometimes deem him as a threat simply because of the color of his skin, so proceed carefully.

That’s a lot to ask of an actual teenager, whose frontal lobe isn’t even fully developed.

And then there’s this argument made by mother and blogger Ijeoma Oluo, who suggests that we should be “raising our brown kids to talk back” because we need to force the system to change.   She writes “I want my children to be confident — arrogant even. I want my children to swagger. I want them to live fully in their own power. This is how many white children are raised. They are raised to inherit the future, to build a great tomorrow in their names. They are raised to argue, to demand. I want my kids to do the same. ”

Theoretically, I’m with her – I read the article and found myself nodding along, agreeing with it all. In theory. I don’t know how I feel about that in practical terms. The mom in me is nervous. The mom in me is scared. The racism in our society needs to stop, but my son needs to survive and I want him to even thrive. I’m 100% with the #blacklivesmatter protesters, but I haven’t taken my son. He is too young to understand them, might find them scary or overwhelming (he cried the first time he heard people cheering at the Boston marathon). He’s not a political symbol. It’s only his job to be an activist is he wants to be, if he chooses to do so. If you asked him now what he wants to do when he grows up, he’d tell you he wants to drive fire trucks or style hair or fly airplanes.

The world needs to change, but it’s not necessarily his job to change it. It’s our job to change it as much as we can to make it safer for him.

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About the Author

Eve is a poet, fiction writer, and playwright whose work has appeared in LilithPoeticaNew Vilina ReviewConcho River Review, as well as many other literary magazines and several anthologies.   She is also a mother and lives in Boston with her spouse and her son.

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