When James Houghton lost his cool one morning, his daughters kept theirs—and got themselves to school like big girls.
I finally snapped when Isabelle, our mostly compliant and eager-to-please ten-year-old, curled her lip and snarled at me. “I don’t care if it is going to rain. I don’t have to wear a raincoat if I don’t want to! You are not the boss of me.”
I started to argue back and then gave up. “Fine. I’ve had it. You guys can get yourselves to school.” I turned and slammed the door as I walked out of the house.
The cool air and misty silence of the early morning threatened to weaken my resolve. Perhaps I had overreacted. Maybe I should have just taken a deep breath and waited for them outside as I always did.
But I was determined to keep walking. For once I wasn’t going to give in for the sake of maturity and the greater good. For once they could accept the consequences and learn the lesson the hard way about taking responsibility, getting themselves ready, and being on time.
The morning had unraveled when Abigail, Isabelle’s less-than-compliant and not-so-eager to please seven-year-old sister, chose once again not to pay any attention to me. With five minutes left before we had to leave to catch the bus, she was still sprawled barefoot on the kitchen floor, smothering the puppy, her breakfast plates far from the sink and her backpack still empty.
My repeated warnings—“I am not kidding Abigail. This time you really are going to miss the bus”—went unheeded. Their inattentiveness to my pleas only fueled my ire.
And my wife, Connie? She was no help. She was deep into her email and seemingly oblivious to the morning’s drama, no doubt content that my usual badgering would get the job done and that everyone would once again make the bus with seconds to spare. But Isabelle’s rare and ill-timed act of rebellion was the final straw.
I went to the gym and stepped onto the elliptical. I began a tentative shuffle, debating whether to swallow my pride, go back home, and apologize to Connie for reacting so childishly and leaving her in the lurch. The girls were no doubt in tears when they realized that I had really gone, and Connie must have had to scramble to get them to the bus. She might have even had to drive them to school herself.
We had talked in theory about allowing them to dawdle and miss the bus as a way to teach them a lesson, but we’d agreed to choose a morning when one of us could take them (and march them to the school’s main office). The idea was that they would be so mortified by the indignity of explaining their tardiness and picking up their late slips that they would never be late again.
But that wasn’t the plan this morning, and I didn’t relish facing Connie after such a sudden change to her schedule. “This is all about you and your own obsession with time,” I could hear her shouting. “They’re only ten and seven, for chrissake. Were you perfect at that age? Why can’t you lighten up?” I gripped a little harder on the elliptical levers and gradually quickened my pace.
“Because,” I managed to retort in my head, “I’m sick and tired of having to say the same thing over and over. And they need to start taking more responsibility.”
The heart-rate monitor flashed, telling me that I was now in cardio mode, and my sweat began to puddle on the base of the machine. “And, by the way,” I went on boldly, “I’m also sick and tired of being the bad cop. Why am I always the one having to be the hard ass and push them out the door? You get to have it both ways. You can be nice Mommy and have time to sip your coffee.”
I shuddered at the stream of virtual invectives she would no doubt hurl at me as I ground the machine to a stop and reversed direction. “Fine. Be pissed. But maybe next time you’ll all realize that you can’t just ignore me and take me for granted.”
The next fifteen minutes disappeared in a frenzy of sweat and flying limbs as I honed all my counter-arguments and defenses. Any creeping reservations were quickly swept away by the endorphins and the sustaining fantasy that the girls’ tears and Connie’s wrath would indeed provide a valuable lesson. In the end they would apologize, I would be gracious in victory, and the morning routine would be fixed once and for all.
Armed with this newfound resolve, I was more than a little surprised to run into Connie walking the dog on my way home.
“Hey,” she offered casually. “How was the workout?”
“Fine,” I replied uneasily.
“How did it end up with the girls?”
“The girls?” A very different kind of adrenaline now kicked in.
“Yeah,” Connie said. “I’m sorry that it was such a crazy morning. Isabelle raced off before I had a chance to say goodbye, and Abigail was frantic chasing after you guys. But guess you all made it to the bus okay.”
My transformation from swaggering autocrat to cowed suppliant was instant. The images were powerful: two confused little girls crying “Daddy? Daddy?” as they ran down the street. Their frightened but expectant faces as they approached the crowded bus stop and asked, “Have you seen my Daddy?” And worse. What if they never made it to the bus stop? What if they had climbed into the car of some all-too-accommodating stranger? What had I done? And all for the sake of unpacked lunch boxes.
Our brief panic as we imagined the worst was remedied by a reassuring, if slightly embarrassing, call to the school. They had made it without a problem.
I felt a little foolish for having stormed out of the house, and certainly chastened by the failure of my melodramatic departure to even register with Connie. But I salvaged some solace in the knowledge that valuable lessons still would be learned.
The girls, after all, had to have been upset by the harrowing experience of the morning, and I began to plan a magnanimous speech that was equal parts apology, forgiveness, and expectation-setting. I may have behaved like a four-year-old, but the morning routine was still going to be fixed.
“Hi, Daddy,” Abigail said as I came through the backdoor that night, her face buried, as usual, in the dog.
“Hi, Muffin. Everything OK?”
“Yeah. But Percy peed on the rug again.”
Not to be deterred by her apparent indifference to the morning’s events, I ploughed ahead. “Guys, we need to talk.”
“I know, I know,” said Isabelle, looking up briefly from her homework.
I had already decided that the best way to ease into the conversation was to start with an open-ended question that acknowledged their feelings. “So, that must have been a little scary this morning, huh?”
“Not really,” Abigail said.
“Well,” Isabelle added, trying to bring me along slowly, “it was a little weird. I thought you went to the bus stop and was kind of surprised you weren’t there. But it was okay. We made it fine.”
It hit me then that they had done exactly what I’d asked: They’d gotten themselves to school, in spite of my badgering and histrionics.
I flashed to the day last fall when Isabelle stopped me well before we made the turn down the main path toward school, and gave me a quick peck on the cheek before racing off to catch up with a group of her friends. “Bye, Daddy,” she called without looking back.
I instinctively grabbed Abigail’s hand harder before she too gently tugged her hand away from my mine. “Bye, Daddy,” she echoed, and skipped off to chase her sister.
“Bye, guys,” I called out. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
I looked back and saw another father, holding tight to a child who had not yet let go. “Yeah,” I said, “this is why we get paid the big bucks.”
He smiled and pulled his daughter closer. I turned back and kept walking. “I love you, too,” I said to the disappearing backpacks ahead of me.
Back in the kitchen now, Isabelle continued her defense. “You know, we can do it now, Daddy. We can walk to the bus by ourselves. We’re not babies anymore.”
No, you’re not, I thought. But I sure feel like crying like one.