One morning as I make myself toast for breakfast and sit down at the table, my son begins to appear around me like a little pigeon.
“What are you eating? Can I have some?” he asks.
I oblige, giving him one of the quartered slices. He scurries back into the living room with it, protectedly. Little pigeon.
A few minutes later, my pigeon returns. But as I look at him, I see he is also a little boy in pajamas, all legs and arms, jutting and gangling out of overstretched sleep clothes, fitting both perfectly and not at all.
“Did you eat all of your toast?” he asks, looking for another crumb.
“Did you shove it all in your mouth?”
Wait. What? I am a little taken aback by the question. This little bird thinks I am a hand-to-mouth shoveling ogre. A bread shover. A mouthbreather bread eater.
Did you shove it all your mouth because you are a big person?” he asks again, more pointedly.
There it is. He only thinks I shove the food in my mouth because I’m allowed to. Because we are always telling him not to do just that. He hears us say “don’t shove it in your mouth all at once.” So he assumes we, adults, big people, must be allowed to do.
Which we do. We do it all of the time. Kid, look, I’ve done my time. Once, I was not allowed to eat candy for breakfast, had to sit still in the grocery cart seat, couldn’t ride the thing through the aisle like a skateboard down a rollercoaster. Couldn’t jump on the bed, do gymnastics on the couch, or ride the dog like a pony.
So yes, I will shove all my food all up in my mouth if I want to. I’m free to do what I want. I’m an adult.
. . .
We’re at McDonald’s. I order the kid a Happy Meal, and I order myself a milkshake. Forget the toy, as soon as he sees I have a milkshake, he’s like one of those Terminator robots — his robotic red eye honing in instantly, scanning all available information before his termimal displays the readout:
MIGHT BE ICE CREAM
HAS WHIPPED CREAM
“You need to share,” he says, not as a suggestion, but as an order. The wife beside me starts cracking up, knowing the deep hole I’m about to fall into. “I don’t know why you thought you could drink a milkshake in front of him,” she laughs.
“I’ll share after you eat your sandwich,” I say.
He stands on his seat, his face contorting into pure anger, transforming into a tiny activist protesting the greatest civil injustice of all time. I am, afterall, sitting less than two feet from a three-year-old, sipping a vanilla milkshake.
His fists are clenched, his brows are furrowed, his lip sticks out. Civil disobedience.
“YOU NEED TO SHARE,” he says, beginning to shout and draw attention. I realize if I concede the tiniest amount, I will concede everything. But I also live my life by one simple rule: to not be the sort of human being who causes scenes in McDonald’s.
“Fine, one sip.”
“Two,” he says shrewdly, without missing a beat, staring me down cold in the eyes.
Human babies are born particularly helpless in nature — a human newborn would have to gestate for nearly two years to be cognitively and neurologically comparable to a chimpanzee newborn. And yet by the time little humans are three they are master negotiators and manipulators. It is this that separates man from beast.
“Two sips,” I repeat back.
Our terms our set. I hand over the milkshake.
He takes one long slug of the thing, draining half the milkshake. He sets it down next his food. He smiles and picks up his hamburger. No longer at the tense negotiations in the middle of Iran-Contra. He’s just a boy, sitting in a McDonald’s, eating a Happy Meal.
He wins this hand easily. But he still has to chew his food carefully, use a napkin, and not whine when his sister looks at him. Do the time.