The lecture begins, as it almost always does, with an involuntary spasm. A ripple starts in my stomach as air rushes into my lungs. My chest tightens, there is a quiver that I feel run up the back of my neck. And then, right when the pressure builds behind my ears, it all just sort of comes out. It’s time for the Sunday afternoon yard work lecture.
“Back in my day…” the lecture spews forth. I don’t intend to give a lecture, I never do. It just sort of happens. The lecture is an instinctual response built into my fatherhood DNA. It was there before me and it will be there after me. But it is always there.
My twelve-year-old daughter refuses to look at me. Her eyes only following one plodding footstep after another as she crosses the lawn. The summer heat is a hindrance to her, but not as much as her old man, the jerk. She carries a small stick in each hand, no bigger than a pencil. She gets to the back of the van, throws them in, and turns around.
The lecture hits another octave, becomes loud enough that the windows on my house begin to shake. I don’t know why this happens, this same pattern over and over again. The lecture pops up when there is work to be done and my two kids are less than enthused to do it.
“Ya know,” I say. “This is going to take all day with that kind of attitude. Do you want to know what my father would do to me with that…” She’s not listening. No one listens to the lecture. Ever. If they did, then I wouldn’t feel compelled to give the lecture.
The Lecture Comes From Our Own Frustrations
I get frustrated with the kids, which makes me frustrated with myself. I shouldn’t get upset. I remember what it was like to work in the heat when you would rather be playing with your friends. Yet, even knowing that, something clicks in me, and I can’t stop what comes next.
“My father would…” the next verse of the lecture starts. My son, ten-years-old and way smarter than me, is carrying his own pencil-thin branches. Only the two sticks. One in each hand. I stare at him as the tempo of my lecture quickens. I see sweat dripping down his forehead and the glossy sheen over his unfocused eyes. I’m betting he could probably recite this lecture word for word. He throws his sticks in the back of the van.
My daughter and son walk back to the stick pile, ready to take another load. They both move like they are in mourning; grieving a Sunday afternoon that is forever lost. I’m over-enunciating my words, making sure that each syllable is crisp and clear. I want any kid that is walking by to get in on this lecture. I don’t know why. Really, I have no idea.
“I had to…” I continue as this is the part of the lecture where I tell them how hard I had it. They should be crying with sympathy for me, their poor old dad. I’m finding my rhythm. I’m in my sweet spot. My cadence is fatherhood poetry that moves like a canoe flowing on a river. They keep walking, and I keep talking.
I realize, halfway through a crescendo of symbol blasts, that this isn’t even my lecture. It’s my own father’s, the same one he gave me. I know it’s the same one that his father gave him, and on and on until that first dad was outside sweating and lost his control. It’s the lecture that has been handed down from the beginning. It’s the in that same spirit, when that first caveman dad ripped into his kids and told them that back in his day he had to walk because he didn’t have this fancy thing called a “wheel”.
Once you’ve started a good lecture, it’s hard to quit. It’s like stopping a sneeze. If you are lucky enough to stop it, it just feels unsatisfying and weird. So I keep lecturing.
“We were so poor that…” This is the good part of the lecture. It’s where I will show the kids how truly bad my own sheltered childhood was, ignoring my own hypocrisy of a boy that always had plenty to eat and a brand new bike.
The thing is, I really do get it. I understand the kids’ lack of enthusiasm in doing yard work. I’ve been on that side of the lecture before as it washes over you, cleaning nothing. On those days that are forever gone and the memories of them are only used as fodder for your own lecture years later.
As I see them doing the march of the Damned, my lecture stops. It breaks and shatters against my own memories of what it was like to be in their shoes. I was that kid at one time. That kid that detested stacking bricks and cleaning brush piles. That kid in me speaks up. “Don’t be such a dick,” he says in my head. “It probably sucks worse with your voice talking about bygone days like it’s some black and white photo. Stop lecturing, just give them the job to do and leave them alone.”
That kid is right.
Who Is The Lecture Really For?
The lecture isn’t for my kids. It’s for me. Strip everything away, every bit of reasoning I have for the lecture and look at it for what it is. The lecture makes me feel like I’m “parenting”. The kids couldn’t care less about the lecture and the meaning of it is lost on them. Which is fine, because if they looked at the meaning they would see that it’s no deeper than dad likes to hear himself talk.
“If you guys finish in the next twenty minutes, we can unload this at the dumpster and then get some ice cream. No more than twenty minutes. That’s your job. Come find me in the backyard mowing when you guys are done.” The kid inside my head cheers.
We all want to teach our kids a good work ethic. We want to show them how to be responsible. Instead of giving them a thirty-minute diatribe about responsibility, perhaps we should knock that off and, ya know, give them some actual responsibility. Just give them clear rules and expectations. In doing that, give them a chance to surprise us.
The kids stop and finally look at me like I’m someone they don’t know. Then they look at each other. A silent conversation happens in only a blink. They are asking if this is for real and can they trust me? They decide that yes, they can, and actually start to move faster.
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