"Are you going to wear your new shoes to school again today?" I ask K-Bird while rubbing sunscreen into his legs.
"No, I don't want to," he says, a little hesitantly.
"Why not?" I pursue, suspecting I know the answer.
"Um," K-Bird hesitates, staring off at something over my head, as if the answer exists somewhere between the mirror above his dresser and the crown moulding. "Because I want to keep them a surprise for my Halloween costume?"
Nice try, dude.
Yes, we bought the black high tops to go with his Despicable Me minion costume. But my hunch says that K-Bird is offering the response that he thinks will appease me rather than tell me the actual truth: that yesterday some jerk kid told K-Bird that his new kicks are ugly, and now he doesn't want to wear them.
Rather than talk smack (thinly veiled in compassion) about jerk kids who do jerky things because they're uncomfortable with their jerky selves, I take a different route: I remind K-Bird how much he loves his new shoes.
"Remember how excited you were yesterday, scootering to school, wearing your brand-new shoes?"
"Remember how they seemed to make your scooter go faster?"
"Remember how, when we got to school, you felt so excited about your new shoes that you called Troy over to show him?"
"Well, those are your feelings about your shoes. And it's not OK to change your feelings about your shoes just because some other [I did not say 'jerky'] kid feels differently about them."
And then, instead of unleashing a litany of woes that await a person who lets other people's opinions change his feelings, I remind K-Bird of his strength.
"Do you remember when you were in pre-K and you wore a sparkly blue headband to school?"
An incredulous look passes over K-Bird's face, but before he can protest, the almost-7-year-old he is now wanting to reject the folly of the 5-year-old he was then, I power into the "strength" theme, fast.
"Well, when your big brother heard that you wanted to wear a sparkly headband to school, he warned you, 'People will tell you that's for girls.' I suggested you could tell those people, 'Headbands are for whoever likes headbands.' But do you know what you said?"
"What?" K-Bird asks, eyes as big as moons.
"You said, 'I'll tell them, "Yeah, so?"' That's how strongly you felt about wearing that headband. You weren't going to let anyone else change your feelings about it."
K-Bird raised his eyebrows and nodded his head, impressed by his own strength.
"And do you know what happened when you got to school?" I ask.
"Well, all the girls gathered around you, and they all wanted to talk about the headband. They asked me, 'Why is he wearing a headband?' And I said, 'Why don't you ask him?' And do you know what you said?"
"You said, 'Because I like headbands.'"
K-Bird laughs. "I did?"
"You did. You felt so strongly about that headband that you weren't going to let anyone change your feelings about that. And guess what?"
"You're still that strong."
K-Bird wraps his arms around me and tugs himself in, pressing his ear against my belly.
What I'm seeing in my youngest son is both sad and predictable: His growing consciousness of social rules is turning into a growing self-consciousness, and I wish I could stop it. However, like so many things in my kids' lives, I know I can't. These guys need to grow their way through their own challenges. But at least maybe I can give them some tools to help.
For what it's worth, I try. "You know what I do when I'm not feeling so strong in myself, K-Bird?"
"What?" he asks, his breath warm on my belly.
"I imagine I have a tube stretching out of my belly button, and that tube connects to a huge tank of strength, and every time I take a breath, the strength from that tank comes down through the tube and fills up my whole body, giving me the courage I need to be myself, no matter what anyone else thinks."
We try a few breaths together. Then K-Bird pulls his body away from mine, his imagination lit up. "Yeah, and that tube stretches from there" -- he points to the invisible tank -- "to here" -- he points to my belly button -- "to here" -- he points to his own belly.
"Yes," I agree. "And sometimes that tube stretches just from here" -- I press my finger to his belly button -- "directly to there" -- I indicate the tank. "And that's what gives you the power to be who you are, and feel what you feel, and like what you like, no matter what anybody else thinks."
K-Bird smiles at me as if he understands, and then we continue our morning routine, getting dressed, brushing teeth, packing up backpacks. When it comes time for our last step, putting on our shoes, K-Bird selects his old, beat-up slip-ons instead of his new high tops. And I say... nothing. Because he's doing what feels right to him, no matter what his mom thinks.