Friday, January 19, 2018

I Am The Boss Of Me

The other day, a boy commanded me to do this or that and I responded, "Hey, you're not the boss of me."

He replied, "I am the boss of you!" He intended it as a joke. Being a knee-jerk contrarian is where his sense of humor stands these days. His smile told me he was anticipating an argumentative response.

I obliged by saying, "You are not the boss of me."

"I am the boss of you."

"No," I corrected him, pointing comically at his chest, "You are the boss of you," then at my own chest, "I'm the boss of me." We went back and forth a bit, then I switched things up by saying, "I'm the boss of you," to which he immediately responded, "No, I'm the boss of me and you're the boss of you."

The iconic Patti Smith once said, "No one tells me what to do, except my daughter," a line that passes through my head each time a child attempts to boss me around. And there's a part of me that's always tempted to treat them all like my own child, of course, relenting in the name of love with an understanding that they don't mean to command me, that it's just a childish shortcut, but I don't. Instead, I hold my ground, sometimes adding in the spirit of Ms. Smith, "What do I look like, your mom?"

I say it first of all because it's true, but secondly I want to role model the stance that I would like to see all people be able to take toward the world: I'm the boss of me. You're the boss of you. I try to not say it with jerk-ish defiance, but rather as a statement of fact. If it's a child who knows me well, I can be confident that they all already know that they can usually get what they want from me by converting their command into a question. When it's a younger child or one I've only recently met, I generally add, "But if you ask me, I'll probably want to do what you want me to do."

There are some adults who recoil at this approach, certain that I'm teaching the children to be disrespectful and disobedient and they're half right. We are raising our kids to one day be adults in a democratic society, one in which we must be equal members if it is to work. We may as individuals choose to take a job or join a church or create other relationships in which we assume a subservient role, but the key concept is that it is a choice we make as a free human, one we should be able to quit the moment we find ourselves the victims of the abuse of power. The degree to which we don't have a choice about this is the degree to which we are not free.

As a middle-aged, white male, this is an easier stance to take than it is for others. The cards are clearly stacked in my favor, which is why I am particularly motivated to do what I can to ensure the children I teach grow up knowing that obedience, especially to me, is not required. I must earn their cooperation by cooperating with them the way I do with my fellow free adults. So yes, I am teaching children to be disobedient, at least to me, and I do so joyfully, but I hope, at the same time, I'm teaching them how to stand up for themselves on a day-to-day basis without being disagreeable. I want them to know that conversations about power, and particularly the balance of power, are not just acceptable, but necessary, be it based on age, sex, race or socio-economic status, and those conversations are most productive when they are done directly, calmly, and with the focus on finding ways to agree, because, after all, when obedience is removed from the equation, we are left with only our agreements.

And agreements among free humans are sacred.

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