Not long ago, my 7-year-old son rediscovered the word "no." Like some favorite toy that had been misplaced and found anew, he began to use it with alacrity. This meant, of course, that his "no" soon became my "woe."
Truth to tell, I was, at first, amused at the frequency and impishness with which he uttered his no's. There was nothing angry about them. They had more the quality of a chirp and Anton always pronounced them with a smile, as if he were merely tasting the word and found it delicious.
The important thing for me was that I could get past his negations with a little coaxing. "Anton," I'd say, "please get in the car."
His response: "No."
I'd shrug and come back with something like, "Well, then you won't get any ice cream." That was enough to strip my son's obstinacy of its appeal, and he'd toddle along, content with having gotten his "no" in, even if he wasn't willing to circle the wagons around it.
But then Anton decided to make noncooperation his life's work, and suddenly he entered a period where he wasn't willing to comply with any of my requests, however modest. Even the ice cream maneuver had no effect, and I'd watch as he'd stand before me, his feet spread wide and rooted in place, his hands planted on his hips. It was hard for me to believe that so much stubbornness could fit inside so small a package.
One day Anton and I were out canoeing. When we put ashore I was careful to avoid the muddy riverbank by stepping on some stones. I immediately saw that Anton wanted nothing more than to sink up to his knees in the muck. "Watch it, Anton," I cautioned. "Don't step in the mud."
"No," he said as he made ready for the plunge, and I wondered how I was going to haul him up and over the mess without falling in myself. And then, for reasons which are still unknown to me, I drew a measured breath and said, "Well, how do people avoid the mud on your planet?"
Anton threw me a bemused look. Without missing a beat, he said, "On my planet, mud is poison."
"Oh," I said, "then let me help you." He gave me his hand and I pulled him onto dry land.
That episode opened a type of portal of understanding between us. Whenever Anton showed initial resistance to a request, I immediately made reference to the customs of his home planet, which he told me was called "Zotz." Zotz, in fact, is a fascinating place, a planet where the most important virtue is cooperation.
Anton won't put on his shoes? Here's the solution:
Dad (kneeling at Anton's feet with sneakers in hand): "What language do they speak on your planet?"
Dad: "And how do you say 'Please put on your sneakers' in Amisani?"
Anton: "Paka leeka."
Dad (working on the first sneaker): "That sounds so polite. Who's the leader of your planet?"
Anton: "A queen."
Dad (tying the other sneaker): "What's her name?"
Anton: "Queen Bubba."
And so it went.
As time passed, I enjoyed a golden age of rapport with Anton, so long as I continued to plumb his imagination. I became fascinated with his ability to conjure up, from scratch, a story line replete with all necessary details. Besides language and governance, there was Zotzian cuisine (meteor pizza), jurisprudence (if you steal something you have to stand on one leg for 1,000 years), and family structure (parents are in charge, but children boss the parakeets around). Whenever I needed Anton to heed a directive or request, all I needed to do was fish for another fragment: "You don't want to go to bed? Well, how fast can kids get into bed on Zotz?" Like a flash, Anton was under the covers with lights out.
A family friend happened to visit in the middle of all this. As we sat and ate supper she remarked at Anton's table etiquette and cooperative nature. "Compared to my kids," she confided, "it's like he's from another planet."
My response: "Bingo."
Of course, such good things eventually lose their shine, and last week I perceived the first inklings that all was not well on Zotz, despite its having 10 suns and eternally purple skies.
The supermarket was the watershed. In the cereal aisle, Anton seized a box of Rice Krispies and threw it into the cart. Seeing that the generic equivalent was only half the price, I made the exchange. Anton seethed, crossed his arms, and refused to go another step.
"Well," I intoned, "how do kids help their parents shop on your planet?"
Anton lowered his brow and rolled out his lower lip. "They don't," he pouted.
Surprised to hear this, I inquired about affairs on Zotz.
"A giant ate it," he said.
I expressed appropriate sympathy and put out my hand. Anton took it and came quietly along.
And that was that. I never heard another word about my son's imaginary world. He doesn't seem the worse for letting it go, and is actually somewhat improved, having become (on the whole) more heedful than before his extraterrestrial ramblings.
I think it was Roger Bacon who mused along these very lines when he wrote, "Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience."
And, I'd like to add, sometimes a way of making life easier for dad.