Solomon Jones: Understanding kids is hard; then they mumble

Posted: April 10, 2013

DAUGHTERS are interesting. My first one, Adrianne, now 20, taught me that if Dante's "Inferno" has nine circles of hell, then parenting a teenage girl is the 10th. Yes, it was that bad.

When Eve came along, she presented a different challenge, because from the moment she was born, she talked. I can still remember baby Eve lying in bed between LaVeta and me as we tried to watch "Late Show with David Letterman." Eve would babble through the entire monologue. In fact, she's babbled through the last 11 years, occasionally making me wish I could remove my ears like dentures and place them in a jar.

I love my daughters, though. Despite their quirks, they are my little girls, and to the extent that a man can understand a female of any age, I get where they're coming from - sort of.

My son is a different story.

Little Solomon doesn't talk a lot, but when he does, he means what he says. I've always appreciated that. In the last few months, however, he's developed a strange habit of mumbling. That's either a weird anomaly in our family of talkers, or it's an ingenious way for him to cover up his true intentions.

I'm afraid he's going to catch me distracted by work one day and mumble something like, "Dad, can you buy me $1,500 worth of Spider-Man video games and book me on a flight to Disney World?"

"Yeah, boy whatever you say," I'll snap, furiously typing as I try to get my column done.

"Can you do it tomorrow?"

"Yes! Now please stop that mumbling!"

He'll smile his devilish grin and leave me to my work. Then he'll come back the next day with his bags packed and a video of our conversation. If I hesitate to pay up, he'll recount my lectures on the evils of lying and use my own words to bludgeon me into submission.

In truth, though, I think the mumbling is just a phase, and not some sinister scheme to get new stuff. Little Solomon, like most boys, isn't that complicated. He does his dirt without planning, wears scabs as badges of honor and doesn't care how he looks when he goes outside. I've seen him head out to play proudly wearing a hobo-like getup consisting of mismatched socks, worn-out sneakers and ill-fitting pants.

That utter disregard for appearance is just one major difference I've seen between sons and daughters. The other difference has more to do with their philosophies. It's a distinction that hit me like a ton of bricks the other day, when Eve came home and posed a question she'd heard from her teacher.

"What would you do with an empty box?" she asked the rest of us.

"I don't know," I retorted. "What would you do?"

"I'd put all my secrets in it and hide it under my bed."

I smiled, because that kind of disclosure is parenting gold. I now know that if Eve ever starts getting all weird on me, the first thing I should do is check for a box under the bed.

As I stood there, fiendishly contemplating the discovery of my 11-year-old daughter's memoirs, LaVeta shrugged at the empty box question, probably because she likes boxes only when there are gifts inside.

Solomon, however, likes his boxes empty. He always has.

When he was a baby, he convinced Eve to push him across the carpet in an empty Huggies box. When he was a toddler and we bought a new TV, he took the box downstairs, drew odd little symbols on it and used it to slide across the basement floor. Another time, he commandeered a box, cut out one side of it, and used it as a sled after a snowstorm.

The boy is usually pretty ingenious with boxes, so I was surprised by his answer when Eve asked what he would do with an empty box.

"I would put it on my head and run into stuff," he said.

We chuckled, thinking that was the end of it, but the boy was just getting warmed up.

"Then I'd put it on my bike and run into stuff," he continued. We laughed again, and he stopped for a moment to contemplate his next move. "If it was a big box," he said, "I'd probably make something out of it."

That was a relief. For a minute there I thought he was going to say he was planning to put it on my car and run into stuff.

Or maybe he did say that. I couldn't quite hear him. He was mumbling.


Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books, including his latest novel, The Dead Man's Wife (Minotaur Books), and the humor collection Daddy's Home: A Memoir of Fatherhood and Laughter. The married father of three has been featured on NPR and CNN, and has written on parenting for Essence and other publications. He created the literacy program Words on the Street. His column appears Tuesdays. More at Solomonjones.com.

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