My beloved Caleb,
Not long ago I stumbled upon a document you created on our computer. It was titled "Rules and suggestions for stealing candy," and, sure enough, what followed was a series of pointers on how to filch sweets and get away with it. Rule number 4, for example, advised: "Clean up after yourself: Don't leave a big mess or others will know that you took something. Remember to close doors, cupboards, drawers, and containers."
It was certainly a brazen piece of writing. (It was also, I couldn't help noticing, well-organized and carefully spell-checked.) To your credit, you didn't deny authorship when I confronted you with it. Unfortunately you didn't seem the least bit remorseful, either.
Your penchant for pinching treats is not exactly a news flash - you've been caught at it more than a few times, most recently when I came across a full-size box of Froot Loops stashed under the covers in your bed. Mama was aghast when I showed it to her - by now she's decided you're well on your way to a criminal career. I can sympathize with her dismay. But as a former 11-year-old boy myself, I'm not quite ready to pronounce you incorrigible.
More often than you know, your infractions and misdemeanors remind me of things I did and the ways I acted when I was your age. No, I never smuggled Froot Loops into bed. But I can recall similar sins: sneaking down to the basement freezer, for example, spoon in hand, to gorge on ice cream when no one was looking. Or pilfering chocolates from the food locker and refusing to 'fess up, even though it meant letting suspicion fall on my siblings.
Nowadays, it's what comes out of your mouth, not what goes into it, that is more likely to get you in trouble: At times you seem to go out of your way to give offense, spouting ill-mannered comments or mocking gibes that you know quite well are going to provoke a backlash. As a "tween" I could be like that too. Time and again I would pop off, pushing my teachers' buttons with obnoxious remarks or inappropriate wisecracks, frequently getting kicked out of class as a consequence. I wasn't nearly so insolent at home, where my parents believed in corporal punishment - and lived up to that belief.
With you it's the other way around: The backtalk and insubordination you save up for your parents, while at school your teachers sing your praises and tell us how courteous, mature, and pleasant you are.
To tell the truth, Caleb, I prefer it that way. I'm quite willing to live with your occasional pique and petulance if it means that the rest of the world sees you at your best. I can't say I enjoy our tug-of-wars, but I understand them. With the approach of adolescence, you sometimes find yourself feeling irritable and resentful, aggrieved by perceived indignities, beset by fools and charlatans whose only skill seems to be to get in your way, or on your nerves. Believe it or not, I've been there too. And if you think your parents excel at finding ways to annoy you now, just wait till you're 14 or 15. We'll be really good at it then.
When you were a baby, I loved watching you sleep. Sometimes I would stroke your tiny hand as you lay in your crib, and you would instinctively wrap your fingers around one of mine, clinging to me even in your sleep. Could you sense somehow that I was a safe harbor, a snug refuge from the world's storms and stresses? Mama and I have tried to be that haven, to furnish you with the physical, emotional, and spiritual resources you'll need as you journey through life.
But harbors aren't only places of sanctuary and shelter. They're also the stable places you push back from when it's time to head out into the world. You're 11 now, growing steadily more independent and beginning to test your sails. Increasingly you push back instead of clinging, insisting on your way instead of mine. The day will eventually come when you're ready to head off on your own. Wherever the voyage takes you, Caleb, we'll always be your home port.
All my love,
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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