A few months ago, I wrote a post called Little Ears are Listening about the day when I realized that my 13 year-old little cousin actually pays attention to the things I say–often with awkward consequences for me. In the time that has passed since then, a few key events have occurred in his life.
First, he got his first girlfriend. They met at summer camp and she just happened to be from the Philadelphia area. I was proud of him
even though at the time, his ability to get into a relationship at 13 sort of made me wonder what I was doing wrong in my life since I was still single. My little brother-in-Christ and I spent the remainder of the summer giving him pointers about navigating relationships as a young teenager. He seemed to appreciate the advice that we gave him.
Second, he started high school. By some miracle, his high school is a few blocks from my mom’s house so he stops by pretty often. As a result, we spend a lot more time together these days. I’m generally around to talk to them about things other than his girlfriend–important things like Algebra 1, Spanish, and making sure he knows how to throw a tennis ball. Unfortunately, he has had the time to pick up some more of my bad habits, which I will talk about later.
Third, he went on his first date. For the record, my mother would have never let me go on a date when I was 13–especially not downtown. Indeed, I have received my share of flack from people who found out that I was bringing my little cousin on a date at that age. I just reminded people that he had already secured his mother’s permission and that the date was not completely unsupervised. My mother and I were always within 5-10 minutes of them.
Finally, he went on his second date. The sign that a first date goes well is when you’re offered a second date. My little cousin amazingly cleared that hurdle on his first try. Many people (like me) didn’t manage to clear that hurdle on the first try for various reasons (that I will likely detail in subsequent blog posts). It was clear that my little cousin who I remembered carrying around as a baby had become a young man in what felt like no time at all.
Here is where the problems started.
People in my family had been pointing out that my little cousin was picking up some of my behavior.
“I’ve noticed him starting to sing more around the house,” my mom said, “He has a decent voice. Maybe you should work with him with it.”
My mom is always kind, but my cousin says exactly what my mom probably meant.
“He just starts singing while we’re all watching TV, sort of like you do,” my cousin said.
“I don’t do that,” I responded, “I normally sing to myself during commercials.”
“And I had to tell him we all were watching TV when he started playing his song on the piano,” my cousin continued.
My cousin was right. Sometimes, I sing to myself and play the piano without realizing that I am annoying people who may be trying to watch TV. Apparently, my little cousin noticed.
Things got worse because my little cousin’s first date corresponded with my first relationship in several years. Truth be told, my little cousin’s first date was in some ways integral to the series of conversations that led to the end of my six years of singleness. (My now girlfriend joked about accompanying me on my efforts to inconspicuously chaperone my little cousin on his first date and said she would come the next weekend because of a scheduling conflict. The rest is history.) At the same time, things started going better for my little brother-in-Christ in that area. My little cousin immediately noticed that the two of us were acting differently. He said we seemed happier and were virtually inseparable from our cell phones.
Within a few days, I started seeing my behavior reflected back at me. One day, my little cousin’s girlfriend called him and he immediately walked upstairs to my mom’s bedroom to take the phone call. His timing couldn’t have been worse. It was a Sunday and the whole family noticed that he went into my mom’s bedroom without asking. I felt bad because I knew that he was only copying me. My mom and I have this unofficial agreement where I can use her room if I have to make or receive an important phone call while I am at her house. Up until recently, these important phone calls were only conference calls for my nonprofit work.
Since I was the only other man in the house, I had the task of going upstairs to remind him that he needed to ask for permission. I reluctantly walked in the room to find him stretched out my mom’s bed just like I’m normally stretched out during such phone calls. It went something like this.
“(Little cousin’s name), you were supposed to ask my mom before just walking in her room like that,” I said.
“Okay,” he signaled so that his girlfriend wouldn’t hear the exchange.
I walked out of the room assuming that he would be downstairs a minute or so behind me to ask for permission. It didn’t happen. Instead, he went in the bathroom.
“Well played,” I murmured to myself. (No, he didn’t learn that from me–at least not directly. I’ve always tried to encourage him to think creatively. I guess he listened.)
In the end, I have learned that I’ll have to be even more careful what I do in front of my little cousin. He tends to underestimate our age gap and assumes in some ways that he can do whatever I can do. I am old enough to be his father if I had gone through a wild boy phase during my adolescence. Nonetheless, we have had some interesting conversations about why he couldn’t go to Vegas with my frat brother and me during Spring Break or why he can’t get into my birthday party at the 21 & up karaoke bar. I keep trying to encourage him to enjoy the remainder of his childhood, but he’s looking forward to the days when he will have the same freedoms that I have as an adult. *sigh*
I guess I am at that awkward place in life where I realize that I am a role model whether I like it or not. I better get accustomed to it because it will only get more complicated from here. For now, I have to understand that not only are little ears listening, but little eyes are also watching.