About a month and a half ago, I sat on a bench in our neighborhood park with my then-almost-4-year-old son after preschool pick up one day. We were having a snack, and he was anxiously waiting to see if any of his friends would show up at the park, constantly eyeing the gate at the end of the green square and sizing up each child that entered. He paused from taking a sip of his juice as a young girl on a scooter pulled up to the gate and began to enter. He quickly abandoned his juice beside me and ran towards the gate.
"LUCY! LUCY! LUCY!" he yelled as he ran towards the girl. There was only one problem: The little girl in question was not his friend Lucy, but a stranger, and my son only realized it as she entered and gave him a bewildered who are you!?! sort of look. He never stopped running as he sped past her with his head down, arcing back across the park towards my position on the bench, where he arrived, face beet red (a curse he inherited from me, sigh). He picked up his juice and shifted uncomfortably in front of me, using me partly as a shield from the misidentified little girl, but never making eye contact with me for fear that I might point out his mistake. (I didn't). In that moment, I recognized something that I had not seen in my children before -- sheer humiliation.
I know the feeling all too well. I have waved to strangers from afar way too enthusiastically, thinking they were friends only to awkwardly shrug when I walked past them. I have tripped on busy subway stairs and imaginary cracks in the sidewalk, only to look around sheepishly to see who noticed my footfalls. I have made it through hours of work meetings, social exchanges and pleasantries, only to glance in a mirror and see a large piece of spinach affixed obnoxiously between my two front teeth from my salad lunch hours earlier. These are the small daily humiliations that are part and parcel of being a human. And while I decline to offer any stories of the true humiliations I have endured, I understand that being humiliated is perfectly and utterly normal.
But the ability to be humiliated is not something we're born with. My toddler still unabashedly craps his pants and declares "POO POO, Mommy!" in mixed company. Even as few as three months ago, my preschooler would declare loudly at restaurants, "My butt itches!" and reach in his pants for a scratch. But recently, some sort of switch has gone off, and I now know that innocence is fading. My son is becoming more of a person everyday, and the butt-scratching freedom of toddlerhood is disappearing. I mourn for it a bit because I know he'll never be that unselfconscious again. And that means he is growing up.
From a sociological perspective, the thing about humiliation is that it is necessary for the functioning of a polite society. For example, earlier this week as we got dressed one day, my son fluffied -- the much more genteel term used in our household to refer to farts -- and left us in a cloud of a particularly noxious odor. When I confronted him, he said to me, "[Our cat] must have come in here last night and fluffied all over the place." Um, OK, probably not, but this sort of blame-shifting in an effort to avoid embarrassment is all part of that growing process. (Note: He has not yet reached the point where he will not fluffy in front of people, but he's a boy and abandoning that habit may be my life's work.)
My little boy is growing up and becoming a small but (somewhat) functioning member of society. All of a sudden, there are a litany of things that out of nowhere, appear to embarrass him. He will not ride in a stroller anymore -- even when he is exhausted and we've been walking around the city all day -- because he is afraid "someone will see!" He will not leave the house in his pajamas because, again, someone will see. He will not go into the ladies room in public with me without loudly protesting that he can't go in there because... yup, someone will see.
A couple of weeks ago, my son turned 4 (which might explain all of my teary-eyed reflection on farts). That same week, we were riding on a bus home from summer camp when a particularly attractive young woman came on board. He gawked, he gaped and he stared at her. That is, until she noticed and I said to her, "I think my son is admiring you." He then proceeded to turn his back to me (and her) and turn beet red. When we arrived home, he told my husband that I "embarrassed" him. I may be sad that my son is growing up and has to endure all the gruesome self-consciousness that comes along with it (he gets embarrassed about girls!), but it's a whole new power to know that I have ability to embarrass him, and that definitely counts for something. And yes, I realize that this means that my days blogging about his ridiculousness may be drawing to a close sooner than I thought...