We knew something was up when Eli, my five-year old nephew, wanted his hair combed by Nigel, my fourteen-year old son. Grooming and appearance had never been a priority for Eli before, outside of Halloween, but there he was holding out a comb in the midst of getting ready for day camp. "Make sure you comb mine just like you comb your hair," said Eli. "I want it to look good for the ladies." This caused a lot of laughter before he was off to Chapman Dam.
Great-grandma was waiting for him when he got back. Over an afternoon snack, she asked him how he enjoyed camp. Eli said, "I had fun in the sand and in the water. Oh, and I asked a girl to marry me." When asked why he wanted to get married, he got a broad grin and answered, "I like everything about her-even her brother!" Great-grandma asked him how the girl responded to his proposal. Eli was disappointed that she didn't reply to him. So, he said, "I told her she was hot." (He heard it on a TV show and thought it sounded good.)
When Great-grandma regained her composure, she patiently explained to him that maybe a better place to start would be to tell her that he thought she was nice or fun. Telling a person they are "hot" or commenting on their appearance can put them on the spot and embarrass them. Maybe he should just say tomorrow that he wanted to be friends. I haven't received a wedding invitation from Eli, so I assume that he took his grandma's advice.
A few days later we noticed something different was up with Eli. A generally affectionate kid, we were used to being greeted with a friendly hug when we saw him. The girls in the family would even get a peck on the cheek. But he started sidestepping people and announcing, "I don't do hugs anymore." Turns out that he heard that from a "cool older kid" and he wanted to be "cool like him." Great-grandma brought some wise advice once again during snack time. She explained to him that cool people are comfortable being themselves, not trying to be someone else-so a cool person would never be embarrassed showing affection to the people he loved. So Eli decided he was cool right then and there and the hugs resumed.
A really satisfying part of my work at Family Services is working with men who batter and otherwise abuse their partners. Many of the men are resistant to the group at the beginning, but talking about a better way to have relationships gradually transforms their thinking. I can't tell you how many times over the last five years that men have told me, "I wish I would have learned this stuff in school." I suggest that learning about relationships can start even earlier than that, and in fact already does: right in our homes. Kids learn the good, the bad, and the ugly about how people treat each other by watching us adults!
There's also some important un-learning that can go on in the home, too, as demonstrated by Eli and his Great-grandma. Messages and values portrayed on TV and in pop culture can be engaged critically, like when grandma and Eli had a conversation about the "she was hot" comment. This same kind of conversation can happen about role models and peers, too. Come to think about it, Eli has a pretty good role model in his Great-grandma. She has a 70-year head start in relating to people and won't steer him wrong!
Ian Eastman, M.A., is a community educator with Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.