Thursday, July 9, 2009

Just Say No

I thought I had at least a decade or so before I had to have the “Just say No” conversation with my son. Kids grow up fast these days.

I’m talking about water balloons here.

I clock a lot of hours at the playground and through my recent time there, I have come to realize there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like to burst water balloons and those who like to keep water balloons intact.

Primo, as you might imagine, belongs to the later group.

He’s definitely not in the majority there. Most of the other 4 year-old boys love nothing more than to hurl full-to-bursting colored vessels of water at each other’s heads. Frankly, I don’t blame them. It looks like fun. If you paid me a quarter, I’d do it too. But my sensitive little boy simply likes to fill the balloons and then carry them around for a while, feeling their weight, appreciating the coolness, watching the bubbles, just generally loving on the balloon.

But yesterday, Primo ran into one of his school friends at the playground, Mark. Mark is a little older than Primo and a real rough-and-tumble, Stars-Wars-loving, prone-to-wrestle kind of boy. This is not a kid that cuddles with water balloons. Primo is always interested in him but a little frightened too, because he’s not one to toes the line, and that freaks my son out.

Since it’s a slow day in the playground when they run into each other, they are both totally delighted and pal up right away, running with abandon through the sprinklers. Then Primo comes sprinting up to me and says, breathlessly, “Mark is so excited we have water balloons! Can he have some! Can we fill them up!”

“Of course!” I say, happy to see my boy having such a lark of a time. I distribute a modest number of water

balloons to Primo, Mark and Seconda, too, despite the fact that she likes to eat them and they are, like, number 1 on the choking hazard list.

As soon as Mark has his, he shouts: “Let’s throw them at each other!!!!”

And then Primo looks worried. And I’m thinking, “Come on, Prim, don’t tell me you didn’t peg him as a burster right from the get-go, now.” But I do have twenty-seven more years of experience than my son so I guess I have that advantage when it comes to reading people, In any event, Primo is trying really hard to be game, so he shouts back, “O-K!” but there’s a waver in his voice that puts me on alert.

The boys fill up a few water balloons and throw them at each other and Mark is having the time of his life while Primo looks like he’s in the waiting room of the doctor’s office.

So I hand out a yellow and a green balloon and I warn, “This is the last of the balloons, guys.”

Mark fills his balloon up first and throws it before Primo can even get his filled. He’s got an insatiable appetite for explosives, that one. And as soon as Primo has his balloon filled, Mark is chanting, “Throw it! Throw it!”

The look on my son’s face is now one of total, undisguised panic. He does not want to throw his last balloon. I know this. I tell him, “You don’t have to throw it, honey, you can keep it.”

Suddenly its like I’m at the initiation for Alpha Phi Alpha and I’m watching a sophomore pushing a freshman to do another keg-stand, when he knows he just can’t handle it. “Throw it! Come on! Do it do it do it do it!’

And then, regretting it even as his hand lets go, Primo throws the balloon.


At that moment, Seconda races at top speed out of the playground and I have to run at a breakneck speed to overtake her before she gets to the street. When we finally get back to where we’ve left Primo, he is no longer there. Instead I find him standing in the far corner of the playground, alone. His mouth hangs open and he is sobbing in huge terrific choking gasps.

“I didn’t want to do it!” he bawls, “I didn’t want to break the balloon and I felt that I MUST! And now it’s too laaaaaaate!”

No one tells you that being a mother will involve having your heart broken just about every day. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a wreck and not fit for the slings and arrows of day-to-day childhood foibles. I just felt so bad for my boy, as he cried: “He just kept telling me to do it and I felt that I must but I just didn’t want to!”

A resourceful mother knows to always keep a balloon or two in reserve, for precisely these emergencies. So I hand one over to Primo, we fill it up together and he carries it carefully all the way home, where we put it in a cup and it still rests. It’s a symbol for something but I don’t know what.

It’s not Mark’s fault, of course. When we left the playground, he was blissfully swinging and waved an enthusiastic “Goodbye!” to Primo, who was still sniffling from the heartbreak of the broken balloon. Primo was confused at how Mark could be so blithely unaware of the devastation he caused but I explained that he didn’t do it on purpose, that Mark probably couldn’t understand why on EARTH someone would fill a balloon with water if not to make an enormous, icy splash with it.

“Honey, you don’t have to do something just because someone tells you to,” I told my son as we left the playground, “It doesn’t matter how many times they tell you to do it or if they yell and shout you can always say,

“Thanks but no thanks, I don’t want to!”

And then we rehearsed – he being Mark and me being him, saying, “No” and then, “I said, No!” and then,

”Buddy, if you don’t back off, I’m not playing with you.”

It’s what they call a teachable moment. What else are you gonna do, right?