Stuffy

“Mama?” Rowan asks as we cuddle in his bed on Friday night. It is a time for Big Questions. “Mama, do we ever go over to Mrs. S’s” — and here he names his junior kindergarten teacher — “house, and ... break all her stuff?”

The look on his face is a mixture of curiosity and horror, as, I’m sure, is the look on mine. What?

“No,” I say. “We would never go over to Mrs. S’s house and break all her stuff.”

As I’m saying the words — and, also, trying not to laugh at the sudden image of me and Rowan arriving unbidden at Mrs. S’s house and ringing the doorbell: “Hi! We’re here to break all your stuff!” — it hits me, what must have happened: kids in the class destroying a toy or some such object, and the teacher saying, “Would you like it if I came over to your house and broke your things?”

I asked Rowan if that’s what happened, and he nods. “Some kids were breaking boxes. But not me.”

Mystery solved. A lesson in empathy, although it’s doubtful that it had the intended effect on Rowan, who has been mulling over a world in which people appear at your door to trash your place. Which is, I suppose, is what does happen to people as a regular occurrence in Iraq certain parts of the world, but Rowan doesn’t need to know this just yet. It’s bad enough that Isaac — nicknamed King Kong — lives to knock down towers of blocks and destroy intricate train tracks. To introduce the spectre of a roving band of JK teachers imposing vigilante justice on the stuff-breakers of the classroom is more than he can process just now.

Not that I am unconvinced that Rowan wouldn’t be capable, given the right conditions, of gleefully breaking plenty of other people’s stuff. Lately, we’ve been having lots of conversations about his body, the spaces it takes up and the ways in which it moves and how these can hurt other people and make them uncomfortable. He can clear toys off a surface with a swing of his arm, run into you full-blown to hug you and be surprised when you totter, insist that there is space for him to sit behind you on the couch or in your dining-room chair. He reaches for a dish on the table and knocks over his milk. He misjudges how much Isaac weighs as he tried to lift him, and lets go. He raises his voice to be heard over our requests, and then our reprimands. On Saturday, we played the Goldberg family classic game of “Grabber Machine” (which, if I described it here — and maybe I will, one day — would sound utterly creepy but is in fact entirely innocent and hysterically funny) and he accidentally butted me with his big, rock-hard head and left me with a fat lip. And then in an effort to make me feel better, he kissed it too hard and made it hurt more. “Slow down,” we keep saying. “Watch your body. Be gentle.”

I’m so intent on raising boys who grow into men who don’t take up too much space — who don’t impose their wide-legged bodies and their opinions and their activities and their conversations on the rest of the world without regard for other people’s “stuff” — that I’m hyper-aware sometimes of how much space Rowan can take up, how much is appropriate. I forget that empathy, the consideration of others, are learned skills, that he’s really still just a baby and utterly vulnerable. I reminded myself of that as I watched him sleep with his head on Rachel’s lap on the couch yesterday — a much-needed nap for an overtired junior kindergartener with a cold that seems to be settling into his chest. I would have taken a picture if I hadn’t been afraid of waking him up.

So, stuff. The breaking of other peoples’. We go through it, and I try to explain his teacher’s comment to him. And while we’re on the topic of mind-blowing revelations, I decide to tackle another one.

“Rowan,” I say, “you know that Mrs. S lives in a house, right? She doesn’t live at the school.”

“Her house is the school,” says Rowan.

“No,” I say, “she lives in a house away from the school. A house like our house. She lives with her family. She’s married. She has a partner. And she has kids.”

“She has lots of kids,” says Rowan.

“No,” I say. “Not the kids at school. Mrs. S has her own kids. Two boys. Like you and Isaac. ” And then I add, for emphasis: “She’s a mom.”

“She’s a mom?” Rowan is incredulous.

“Yes,” I say, “a mom. Like me.”