Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Waiting in Traffic to Punish my Kid



There is construction on the road I take home from my office at 5 o' clock. I keep forgetting that there is construction on the road that I take home from my office at 5 o' clock. Once you are on the road that has construction, getting off it will only delay you more. I mention this because, during the winter, my kids go to bed at 7:30. That means, if my commute takes an extra 25 minutes on the way home, because I forgot that there is construction on the road I take home from work at 5 o' clock, then I have about 45 minutes with my kids before it is time to start their bed time routine. Yesterday, as I sat with the other poor saps who forgot about the construction, I decided to call Stevie and have her put Duchess on the phone. At least then I could have a little more time, even if it was as a disembodied voice on the other side of her Angry Birds machine. When Stevie picked up the phone I heard this:

"Duchess is in trouble. You're going to have to take away her clock."

I'll explain the clock. Remember Duchess's bed time routine with the sticker board? Every night she was good and didn't wake up Captain, she got to put a sticker on her board. When she filled the board she got to pick a toy at the store. Duchess didn't want a toy. Duchess wanted a clock. She's been kind of obsessed with time lately. She was always asking us what time it was. So when she picked out a cool little digital clock for her reward, I was not surprised at all. It quickly became her prized possession. We'd be playing in the living room, and she'd stop me and say "Daddy, can I go look at my clock?" Then she'd run to her room and run back out to tell us all what time it was.

Well, another thing that has been happening lately is that Duchess has been getting in scuffles at Daycare. I'm sure there are multiple factors to this including: a little, and newly mobile, brother getting in her stuff all the time, a sleep schedule that is not as consistent as we would like it, and Duchess is just tough and doesn't take crap from anyone. But hitting is bad, and we've told her this. Nothing worked until I finally told her that if the daycare told me she hit again I would take away her clock. We told her teacher about the threat, and it has been part of the messaging at daycare ever since. That put a stop to the hitting - until yesterday. So… back to me in traffic. Sigh…

"Tell her I am mad at her for hitting. Explain I am coming home to have a talk with her, and that I will be taking away her clock."

"OK. I'm sorry honey."

"Don't be sorry. It was my threat. It's my job to follow through. I'm going to be awhile."

"Did you forget about the construction on 7th again?"

"Yes."

Well shit. I can see the tears spilling out of her abnormally large eyes as her mom sends her to her room. I can hear the tiny little air gasps that are far worse than the tantrum that will precede them. I can predict the loss of breath as the air is sucked from the room while I unplug her clock, her favorite clock, the clock she takes pride in, the clock that makes her happy. I slam my fists on the steering wheel and accidentally honk my horn. The guy in front of me looks back and lifts his hands in the air as if to say "You should have known this construction was here. It is always here." I wave back. "I know. I know."

I remember being a kid, waiting in my room for my dad to come home and punish me a few times. Strangely, I don't remember any of the reasons. I just remember the dread. I remember formulating my story. What would I say? How would I explain what happened in a way that would assuage his anger? How could I make things right?

Now I am on the other side of it, and nothing much had changed. All I can think is, "What am I going to say? How will I explain what was happening? Do I pretend to be angry, or do I let her see how sad I am? How can I make things right?" The car in front of me moves six feet. I follow suit.

This has been one of my biggest challenges as a parent. Hell, this has been one of my biggest challenges as a person. I have this horrible obsession with fixing things, and with being right. When it comes to math, when it comes to facts, when it comes to the Green Bay Packers being the greatest football team in the history of the world, being right is easy. When it comes to being a parent, almost everything lives in this grey area of "maybe."

Should we let Duchess try out the big slide on the playground by herself? Maybe. Give it a shot and see what happens. Oh look, she fell on her face. Is that bad? Maybe. Should we give Captain peanut butter? Maybe. Give it a shot and see what happens. Oh look, no hives. Does that mean he's not allergic? Maybe. Should we spank our kids? Probably not. Oh look, they still don't listen to us. Is that because we don't spank them? Maybe. What if I take away her most prized possession in the world? Will that work better? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. The problem with traffic is it gives you too much time to think.

I decide to call the daycare to get more of the story. Turns out she didn't just hit one kid. She hit three kids. Well, it was a combination of hitting and pushing.

"Did they hit back? Or did she just clear the room Jacky Chan style?" My joke doesn't get a laugh. She will have to check with the teacher. Now all I can picture is my tiny Duchess bicycle kicking some kid in the face while using various pieces of adorably sized furniture to fling kids around the room like rag dolls.

Or something like this... without the pads.
What am I going to do? What if she gets kicked out of daycare? Maybe I should put her in karate. Maybe she is destined to fight crime. Would that help? Maybe. You can go to hell maybe. You can go straight to hell. I look at the time on my dash board and all I can think about is her little clock. It changes colors every few minutes from red to green to blue to yellow. It transitions gradually and becomes each intermediary color in between. When she watches it with her eyes wide, her face is a smiling rainbow. Shit. Shit. Shit. I hit the steering wheel again. Honk again. Wave sorry again. This guy must think I am crazy.

This is driving me crazy. Not this specific situation. The ifs. The ifs are driving me crazy. The ifs are my life now. Is this how it was for my parents? Were they just as clueless about how to do this as I am? I don't know how to make a good person. Hell, I'm 32 and I just barely learned how to make a proper over easy egg. What if taking her clock away breaks her? What if I just sit her down and explain how society works. Violence is not an acceptable reaction in our society, except in movies, and on television, and even in the Disney movie you just fell in love with. Yes. Frozen. The geniuses at Disney spent an entire beautiful movie flipping the fairy tail princess story on its head, defying gender rolls, making true love an act that is given instead of received, telling the story of two women trying to connect with, and love, each other, and then in the last 3 minutes of the movie have the main protagonist needlessly punch a guy directly in the face. Then everyone laughs, including my daughter. Thanks Disney for making violence against men a joke. Would you mind calling our daycare?

Of course it isn't Disney's fault. It's probably no one's fault. It is probably an amalgam of circumstances, both in and out of our control, that have lead to my daughter becoming an unstoppable ninja. And yet, it falls to my wife and I to fix it. AS SOON AS I GET OUT OF THIS TRAFFIC! JESUS, IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG UP THERE? I poke my head out of the car. Nope. Just construction.

Here's what I decide. No yelling. I will remain calm but stern. I will walk into Duchess's room and discuss what happened. I will be persistent and make her tell me why she is in trouble. I will make her tell me what her punishment is. I will take away her clock. I will understand that she will react to this poorly, and I will allow myself to accept her reaction as who she is in that moment. I will love her AND be mad at her. I will know that this may not be the right thing to do, but it is the best way I know how to do it at that moment. I can't always be right anymore. I'm a parent now. If I worry about being right all the time, I will be perpetually stuck in traffic forever, over-analyzing every decision I need to make, and never making any. I don't need to always be right, I need to strive to be less wrong.

I take a deep breath and let that be it. I feel the tightness in my jaw and my shoulders slowly let go. Tonight is going to be rough. My 45-60 minutes with my kids before bedtime are going to be tearful and loud and I can't fix that. But I can do my best, and that is going to have to be enough.

The car in front of me starts to move slowly, then a little quicker. It's my turn. One more deep breath to calm down. The guy behind me honks. I wave. I know. I know. The gas pedal descends and I head home to do my best - to be less wrong. 

Thanks for sitting in traffic with me, 

Dad (John)

P.S. Oh yeah, don't forget to come hang out on the Ask Your Dad Facebook Page. We have a lot of fun. 

12 comments:

  1. Our daughter turned three months old today. She is our first, and we go nuts every time she blinks ("Look, she blinked! You blinked, baby! You're so smart!"). Getting lunch in a drive-thru today, I had this crazy flash of Ladybug in 16 years doing the same thing, with her friends in the back seat. Flash to me, 41 years old, mom of said 16 year old. I panicked and turned on some music, just to think of something else. I can't imagine what it will be like the first time we have to punish her for doing something we told her not to. I can't imagine what it will be like when she comes home after curfew. Heck, I'm having a hard time imagining her walking. So, good luck with the discipline, I have nothing to add. I just hope my husband and I react as calmly and rationally as you plan to. Maybe traffic is a blessing; it gives you time to make a measured response and not "honk your horn" at your Duchess. Hope it went well.

    On the karate comment, for what it's worth: If you get the right dojo, karate can teach kids some mad respect and self-control skills. It's not about hitting other kids, so you don't have to worry about sending ninja-toddler back to wreak havoc on the daycare. The instructor also becomes a great ally in your discipline at home, since he or she has a different kind of pull with your kids. The little ones at our dojo are some of the most respectful and well-behaved kids I know (until they turn into preteens, then all bets are off).

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  2. No one knows how to parent your own kid better than you. That pretty much makes you an expert. So even if you feel like you're flailing, or an inexperienced 32 year old egg amateur, you are an experienced pro at raising Duchess. And she's going to put you through every test program she has to make sure you don't get rusty.

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  3. John - thanks for this brilliant read. Your words completely resonated with me; I too have been "stuck in traffic" both literally and figuratively (usually both) a number of times over the years on the way home from work. I've tried all sorts of approaches to the wait-till-your-dad-gets-home kid, but not sure if I've ever got it right.
    My favorite line from your post though is one that I will remember well, and try to follow: "I don't need to always be right, I need to strive to be less wrong." Love it. :)

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  4. Great storytelling, John. Follow through can be heartbreaking, but I think it is an important cornerstone to non-violent parenting and I bet you are a lot closer to "right" than you believe you are on most days (I hope I am too.) I hope Duchess reforms her ways, or that you learn she was defending some smaller child against daycare tyranny or something and I hope you get a traffic app. Thinking is overrated.

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  5. That was a great read. I know what you mean about wanting to be right all the time, but finally realising that it is impossible as a parent. I have decided that if I can't be a perfect dad I can at least be good enough. And that is about all anyone can ask for.

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  6. This was a great read. I thought I would offer one thing that has seemed to work well with my daughter. In the moment, when there is something to punish, I take the approach that you described. It's important to follow through on your threats/promises, even as much as it pains me.

    But I have also been very intentional later, when things have calmed, maybe the next day, to explain that sometimes, when you (she) makes mistakes, or does something wrong, Mama and Daddy get upset. But we still love you, even if we are upset. Sometimes you get upset with the people you love. Sometimes you do the wrong thing, and you will get in trouble for it. But we will always love you, no matter if you get in trouble.

    Sometimes I even tell her about a time I got in trouble and my mom or dad was angry. I thought it would be good for her to know that we all mess up. Doesn't mean she gets off easy :) but it does mean we're all human.

    All I know is that it makes me feel good - like I'm doing right by her. I remember thinking my parents, specifically my dad, were perfect. Walked on water. So I like to her to know I'm not perfect, but I'm still in charge!

    For what it's worth...I thought I'd add this to the conversation.

    I think we all just do the best we can. And the fact that you even think about these things makes you an awesome dad.

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  7. Great read. Discipline is hard and we're trying to do the best we can with our own little princess and her new baby brother. It seems that calmness, consistency and follow through are the keys although it's seldom easy.

    Don't do what I did last night, our 2 year old daughter has taking to randomly squealing at the top of her lungs. After the 10th time in a row while being asked not to and while we were explaining that her for the umpteenth time how squealing hurts other peoples ears, I came up with the great idea of demonstrating to her how annoying it could be.

    I asked her "how do you think you would like it if Daddy squealed". She said "I would like it" so in my infinite wisdom I let out a roar - at a husky 43 my days of high pitched squeals are far behind me. The roar was so deep and so loud that my wife said that she peed herself a bit. My daughter looked at me for a moment, then I saw this look of absolute terror creep over her face and she burst into tears. Rather than showing her how annoying it was, she was as scared as I've ever seen her. Why was her daddy, her best imaginary teacup drinking buddy roaring at her like some sort of demented lion?

    I scooped her up and gave her a big hug and explained that that's how other people feel when she squeals around them. She calmed down after a few minutes and we're best friends again now, but I've been feeling terrible about it ever since. I just hope my stupidity hasn't broken our bond at some deep level.


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  8. Sitting in traffic is probably the very worst place in the world to dwell on existential questions like "who am I?" and "what should I do with my life?" and "why is my thirty-pound daughter able to bring me, a grown man, to my knees?" For proof, I present Michael Douglas in "Falling down."

    Really appreciated this post, John. There really are so many "maybe"s in parenting, which is both frustrating and ironic because so much of parenting has to be done confidently and immediately without losing composure. It reminds me of the difficulties of asking questions that I encountered while I was in the military. We were encouraged to ask questions in our military science classes, but warned that in combat, in the heat of the moment, you've got to follow orders quickly and decisively, no matter your personal uncertainties in the moment. " 'Cause people are gonna die while you waffle, soldier!" But wait - isn't the heat of the moment one of the most important times to ask questions? Ah, well, that's one reason I'm not in the military anymore. And it's also a reason that parenting gives me ulcers.

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  9. Great read John (as ever). I think it's worth adding that your drive of self-torment and doubt shows how much you love your kids. They are lucky to have a dad who puts himself through all this just to do the right thing by them. Kudos to you sir.

    One questiom:did you send the next mornings drive back to work asking yourself "did I do the right thing?" Every 15 seconds? I would have....

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  10. One of the biggest hurdles I knew I would be facing when we decided to have kids, was not repeating the mistakes of my father. Overreaction, and getting mad at something small because he was actually mad about something else. I've been pretty intimidated by the whole concept of fatherhood, frankly. Like you said, we're making a person. It's a relief to know that as I read your articles, and the replies, that I'm not alone in having these same concerns.

    Squeaker is just 3 weeks old today. I'm looking forward to all of the amazing stuff that he and I are going to learn and experience together. I've got a ways to go before I have to worry about him breaking curfew, but I know that day will come.

    If I can get out of his teens without being looked at as the worst dad on the planet, I think that might be a victory. lol

    I found your blog months ago when I read the article 5 Things I'd Forgotten About Having a Newborn, while preparing to have a newborn myself. I've been reading it ever since. Material from the dad's point of view is not easy to find as I had hoped. I'm incredibly grateful for the time you take to share with us.

    Thank you.

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  11. A mom of an almost 3 year old and a 1 year old here - I could relate so much to this. I work full time and my kids are in daycare full time and my husband is the one who picks them up and starts off the night with them. The longer I sit in traffic, or wait so we can all gawk at whomever got pulled over for speeding, or an accident, etc., is less time I get with my kids before THEIR 7:30 bedtime. And oftentimes, my 45 minutes are loud and chaotic and full of whining and tantrums and tears. Glad i'm not the only one who understands how miserable this can be, but yet, not always helped. Sometimes we just have to do those messy unfun, don't-know-what-we're-doing parent things. So, i hear that - that is all ;) Hang in there ...

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  12. This was such a meaningful story! I loved how you analyzed everything here...this is how I feel about parenting. It was great reading it from a dad's perspective. Thank you for the details. How did it turn out?

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