“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” my 13-year-old son said to me as we worked through another day of virtual school.
“Um, Ok?” I said, not sure why he needed to tell me this information. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had to ask him if he had to go potty.
I’ve been noticing a pattern with him lately. “Gonna take a break here, Boss,” or “Math work done, Boss!” like it’s some scene straight out of Shawshank Redemption. It almost seems like he’s asking for permission to even breathe.
“Son,” I told him, “you don’t have to ask my permission to go to the bathroom. You can, you know, just go take a leak, and I’m good. I’m not taking a grade on the quality of your bathroom time.”
He stared at me for a minute as if I was speaking Mandarin. “What?” he finally asked.
“Just go do what you have to do. You have your assignments from your virtual teacher. Just do them. If you’re stuck on an assignment, then come to me. But not for snack time, unless you want to make that a thing again.”
Which I would totally do. Snack time when he was a toddler was awesome. We’d get to have juice boxes. Who doesn’t love a juice box?
“Um, ok,” he said.
That lasted for about a day.
“I need to go pee!” he said the next morning.
“Are you doing a math problem while you pee?”
“Then you don’t need to ask permission!”
Since the start of the school year, this has been a bit of an annoyance for me. I have a high school student and also a second-grader as well. My days are spent running from one level of assignments to another. At any given moment, I could be practicing French with my daughter (which I don’t speak) or working on number bonds with my 7-year-old (which I also don’t speak.)
In between all that, I am attempting to get freelance work done. Normally, I would be home alone and free to chase any writing that came across my path. From writing copy for a company to a humor piece for publication. I would have hours to think of a premise or a hook, a few more to craft the piece, and then edit until the kids came home. Things are a bit different now.
“Dad, I need help with algebra!” my oldest daughter will scream.
“Dad, I can’t get on my Zoom call!” my youngest will follow up with.
And then finally, “Need to take a pee break, Boss!” from my 13-year-old son.
It’s no secret from my past posts that I’m a bit frustrated with our current learning situation, but I feel like we are actually finding our way. And it was my hope that maybe we had turned a corner. That things would run smoothly and without interruption. Then I am reminded that I am a fool.
“Dad…” my son started.
“Wait!” I said to him. “Wait, wait, wait! Are you having a problem with homework? Is there a lesson that you don’t understand?”
“Ok, what is it?”
“I was going to my room for a quick break. I don’t have anything for 30 more minutes.”
Exasperated, I finally asked him. “Why do you need to tell me? Just go, man.”
“I don’t know. It’s what I do in school.”
You remember the part above where I was reminded that I am a fool? This is that part.
He’s right. When he’s in normal school, every action comes with some sort of direction, and it is under a teacher’s supervision. Even to go to the bathroom, he has to ask and then has the specter of a time limit hanging him over. When he finishes his work, he raises his hand. When he needs a break, he tells a teacher. And if he doesn’t, he is afraid he will get sent to the office.
And for my son, that’s when I get it. Is school like a prison? For him, a little bit. My son is a people pleaser. He puts the weight of the world on his shoulders and when something doesn’t go right, he turns all the blame in on himself. He internalizes it. Didn’t get an A on a math quiz? He didn’t study enough. A missed assignment? He wasn’t listening. He truly is his own worst critic.
And the thing is, I know that rules are important, but knowing when to break them has value. What the older generation has done is not always the right way. What may have worked in the past may not work now. Situations change, and I don’t want him afraid to challenge authority when it’s needed. When there is something that isn’t fair in life, I don’t want him to sit and take it. I want him to fight. I want my boy to break the rules.
“Ok, here is how we are going to do this. I fully and 100% give you permission to break the rules. You don’t have to ask to go to the bathroom, or take a break, or take some time to make sure your mental health is up for the day. I give you permission to exist.”
“What?” he said, still not getting it.
“You be you. That’s what I’m telling you. You have good judgment, I’ve seen it. I’ll be there to get your back if things go south but trust yourself because I do.”
I could see the lightbulb go off in my son’s head. The true realization that what we are doing isn’t normal or ordinary. That the rules don’t apply, and it’s ok to make his own. That’s the boy that I want to see. That’s the boy that is going to leave my house and change the world. He’s a badass, and he just needs to see it. And somedays, authority needs to get out of his way and let him decide the best direction to go.
“Really?” he said.
“100%. You are in charge of you from now on.”
“Good, math sucks, and I’m not doing it anymore,” he said.
“Hold up,” I began.
“Kidding! I’m taking a break.”
And then he walked away, and I heard him set a timer. But this time, he didn’t ask for permission.