Family Man®: Caveboy Speaks
By Gregory Keer

For years, I lived with a prehistoric boy. He showed signs of modernity in his looks (no excess body hair, unless you count the shaggy haircut) and with his choice of tools (made with circuitry rather than flint), but he spoke in grunts.

“How was school, Benjamin?” I’d ask each day at pickup.

“Nnhhh,” he’d growl, like an extra from Encino Man.

I got the same responses for just about any question I dared call into his cave. It didn’t matter if I was asking about his friends or what his latest reading material involved, I couldn’t get a polysyllable out of him.

As is my usual way, I figured there was something wrong with me. After all, my son was only an elementary school student, too young to develop adolescent surliness or a calculated agenda that warranted using the silent treatment. When he was with his buddies, he never shut up. He even earned a couple of “Needs Improvement” remarks on his report cards for talking too much in class. Who was this kid and why, when he was around me, did he clam up like a low-level mobster getting worked over in a police interrogation room?

It must have been the way I asked questions, or when I asked them, or the kinds of questions. So, on occasion, I tried inquiring about Pokémon. In those cases, I got more vociferous responses … only I couldn’t understand a damn thing he was talking about between the multitude of strange “mon” names and obtuse game rules.

At that point, I pretty much gave up, assuming that I would have to wait until Benjamin was in college or a family man himself before I could have a legitimate talk with him.

Then, fourth grade happened and my young Neanderthal went verbally ape. Perhaps, in getting a little older and wiser, my 9-and-a-half-year-old suddenly found more in common with me. It was as if he realized I wasn’t a boring adult, fit only for hounding him about washing his hair for more than five seconds or eating with a fork (another example of his caveman habits).

Now, when I ask him about his school day, he responds in paragraphs. The newly verbose Benjamin tells me the slapstick jokes his friends concoct, what he learns about plant growth, even his running time for the race he does every so often in P.E.

In past school semesters, the only verbal interaction about homework involved Benjamin whining and snapping at me whenever I tried to get him to do the assignments. These days, he likes to discuss American history and report back on the solutions to the math riddles his class figures out. My favorite homework discussions happen when I help him study for his weekly spelling test. I make up sample sentences that relate to our lives and he laughs at the corniness of most of them, such as, “Benjamin thinks the whole world revolves around him.” He works until he gets them all right, which often takes us extra rounds on the car ride to school. Sure, it’s a little nerdy, but we’re bonding.

School isn’t the only topic that has Benjamin buzzing with me. He used to tune out when I talked about jazz, but now he asks to hear my old Keith Jarrett CDs and makes comments like, “Did Dizzy Gillespie really have cheeks like a blowfish?” In the past, he found pro sports boring, but now he recommends ways I can improve my fantasy baseball team. And he never liked deli food until recently, when I took him to one of my old haunts for pastrami. I still don’t believe he craves the grub; it’s the opportunity for conversation he seems to enjoy.

I know that this is precious time with Benjamin. Soon enough, adolescent hormones will kick in and he will not want to prattle on with me as much. My hope is that this year of chatter and connecting will help us pave a familiar path so that, when he does want to chew the fat, he can just head up the road to me. I’ll always be here. Ready to talk with my son.

Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of three boys. Visit our archive of Family Man columns.