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Negotiating manhood

THE picture I hold is 18 years old. The event it portrays happened yesterday. A smiling, well-scrubbed, neatly dressed five-year-old is standing with his two younger sisters. None of them seem to understand the importance of this occasion. The only clue in the picture that separates it from a run-of-the-mill ``These are my children'' photograph is the square shiny tin lunch box. It was a very important day.

As my parents would say, ``A lot of water has gone under the bridge'' since that photo was taken. I think of how relatively easy it was to prepare for Mike's first day of school; not all the firsts would be that easy. He was enthusiastic and full of energy, and his small group of friends went with him. There was comfort in sharing the experience and so many new adventures to explore.

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How happy he was, bringing home the stick-figure drawings, the coloring books filled with progressively neater pictures, and learning to comprehend Dick, Jane, and Spot and the mystery of numbers.

High school was another matter. As my father was fond of saying, ``Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.'' Mike did not want to attend a college prep school with a reputation for hard work. Few of his friends would be going with him, and the worlds he would be expected to explore did not seem exciting. ``And, besides, I don't know if college is something I want to do.'' I remember it was a long hard summer of negotiations.

A year's trial period was agreed upon and subsequent summer discussions became less intense. Throughout high school there were more of them - ``It's important for your grades to be as good as you are capable of, in case you decide to go on to college.''

``Did you study? Is your homework finished? It should be neater. You can't go out until it is!'' All seemed to be a permanent part of our vocabulary during those years.

Years later he admitted that it had been a great experience and he was glad that his mother and I insisted he attend. Ah. The tasty little tidbits that only parents get to savor, but unfortunately, after the fact.

His announcement that he intended to go on to college, but only after taking a year off to work after high school, generated more bargaining sessions. His arguments were thought out, reasonable, and convincing. I suspect he had learned the subtleties of negotiating after all these years. During this time I became a little sad but very proud. He was taking charge of his life, being responsible for his actions. His year of work in a restaurant saw him progress from a pot scrubber to head cook. I would be needed less and less for training, pushing, prodding, and, finally, negotiation.

Advice is still asked for but not always taken. The results of making his own decisions have varying degrees of success, but his choices improve all the time because of the effect on him.

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There are other tasty tidbits to savor.

Watching him develop a strong relationship with both of his sisters.

Buying a car with his own hard-earned savings.

Getting grades in college that are worthy of his ability without any parental prodding.

Visiting his grandmother because he wants to.

A summer of traveling, maturing a boy into a man.

Having a summer employer value his ability to perform as expected.

His tenacity in pressing me to break bad habits. (I'm making progress.) Is this the role reversal I can expect in years to come?

Listening to him talk of acquaintances who have made poor choices and wonder what kind of upbringing they have had.

Getting an unabashed bear hug from my ``boy'' who towers above me.

During a recent trip home from school for the holidays in this, his last year of college, we talked of what he can expect to happen in the next few months - r'esum'es, research into companies he would like to work for, what his long-range plans may be, a possibility of him and me in business together.

Our conversation turned to exchanging his current uniform of sweats, jeans, and sneakers for more appropriate business attire. He asked my advice. I suggested that the usual suits, shirts, ties, shoes, and a raincoat would start his wardrobe off and, as I talked, a picture came into my mind of a smiling, well-scrubbed, neatly dressed 23-year-old, enthusiastic, full of energy with so many new adventures to explore.

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