I was sitting across the dinner table from my 9-year-old son, Tristan, when he reached into his nose, pulled out a booger, and placed it in his mouth. His two younger sisters and mother were also at the table. In front of him was a flavorful spread of black beans, quinoa, rice, and tortillas, yet his plate had nothing but some chips and a few strips of cheese. When we first placed the food at the table Tristan looked at it with large, terrified eyes, as though it were not a wonderful meal, but rather jagged rocks at the bottom of a deep canyon.
“Really,” I said. “Rather than eat this wonderful food you choose a booger?”
Tristan looked up at me, gulped, and said, “Bah.”
He said it with raised eyebrows, as if it were a legitimate argument. As if it explained everything that needed to be explained and there was no need to say one more word.
“Tristan,” I said. “You need to stop eating your boogers. Especially at the table.”
“Balerp-a-derp,” he said.
Then he twisted the corner of his mouth in a sly grin that seemed to say, Your move, Dad. Or at least that’s how I saw it. I do a lot of inferring with my son recently. In the past year he, and his friends, have taken to talking in gibberish. They use nonsensical words like, “Bagah” and “Be-be” and “Blerp” and a number of other sounds, followed up by facial expressions, raised eyebrows or a snarky grin, that are intended to show sincerity, and thus legitimize the use of gibberish. But the fact is, none of it means shit. It doesn’t mean a thing, and to me as a father, to confront someone who only speaks in random tongues is so infuriating I often have to step into another room.
The really challenging part is that this has been part of a long term deterioration in his language. Not that he’s starting to swear or anything, more that about two years ago he did something similar, only he kept repeating the word burrito with different influxes of tone as though it were a language of it’s own. He thought this was hilarious. I did not. Never mind the fact that he wouldn’t touch a burrito. He looked at them like they were a long dark cave. I assumed he would grow out of it, but instead he moved into gibberish rather then a new word, or, heaven for fend, full sentences.
The most irritating thing about all of it is that my son is bright. I know this. His teachers know this. When it comes to reading and language he is well above his age. He can hold challenging conversations that show his insight into situations. And yet, when he gets with his friends, he talks in goo’s and bah’s, and when he is confronted by me, his father, he does the same.
And when I think about that, I realize there might just be something more going on. I wonder if this gibberish crap is some sort of defense mechanism that he uses with his friends to downplay how smart he really is, and he uses to offset confrontation with me.
And when I think about that, I fully realize just how complicated this whole parenting thing really is. How do I communicate with someone that won’t speak to me? I assume this will only get worse when he’s a teen. I can see the full trajectory now. He went from speaking in burrito, to gibberish, and eventually to not speaking to me at all. At least that’s how I handled things as a teen. I just didn’t speak unless I was forced to speak, and in those moments, I usually lied.
Perhaps I’m over complicating this. I do that sometimes. I often over react or make something out of nothing, and it’s only in hindsight that I realize what I’m doing.
“Tristan,” I said. “Are you scared of me?”
He went to say something that didn’t make any sense, but then stopped short. He looked me in the eyes, and I felt a little nervous. I wondered if I did scare him. If I was some sort of over protective father, or perhaps too strict and didn’t realize it.
“No,” he said.
We sat in silence for a moment. Everyone at the table was eating. If felt like just the two of us were talking.
“Then why do you do that?” I asked. “Why do you speak in gibberish every time I confront you about something you are doing wrong?”
Tristan gave me a large blue-eyed gaze, like he’d never considered any of this. Like he didn’t realize that I could perceive something like that from his gibberish.
“It’s just a joke, Dad,” he said. “I’m just joking.”
“Yeah, well… It makes me feel like you don’t want to talk to me. Is that the case? Because if it is, I don’t want that. I always want to talk to you. You are my son. I mean, I don’t want you to eat your boogers. But that isn’t a deal breaker. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if you always eat your boogers I’d still love you. I ask you to stop. I will always do that. But I will still love you.”
Tristan grinned at what I said, and I wasn’t sure if it was because we were talking about boogers, or if it was because he liked the idea of always eating his boogers.
Then I looked closer, and realized that he was smiling because of how much I love him.
“I like talking to you, Dad,” he said. “I just think balerp-a-derp is funny.”
“That’s it?” I said. “Well… can you stop doing it when I ask you to stop doing something? I hope that makes sense.”
“Balerp-a-derp,” he said while nodding.
I paused, looked him in the eyes, and he said, “Yeah… I can do that.”
Then I smiled and said, “Bah.”