I knew setting out that it was going to be rough. One of those parenting … nay LIFE moments where you sink or you soar: I was going to take on Target on a Saturday morning—alone—with all three kids. To make matters worse, the seven-year-old had not come willingly—and was nothing if not absolutely committed to having a terrible time.
As we pulled into the parking spot, he said something mouthy—not any more mouthy than anything else he’d said over the course of the car ride, but it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. “Hold on a minute,” I began as we all got out of the car. And that’s when it happened. As I was taking a breath to start my lecture on expectations for the remainder of the outing he just … walked away.
An act of defiance and disrespect, this simple act had me fuming.
“Oh hell no!” I said, and out came the pointer finger. “You will come back, and you will stand here!”
He walks and stands about a foot from where I’m pointing. “No. HERE!” A six-inch move. Another act of resistance.
“I’m going to count to three, and then I’m going to take you by the hand and help you make a right decision.”
Once placed, I read the riot act. And as I loudly proclaimed all the types of garbage behavior I would no longer be tolerating from my seven-year-old in the middle of the Target parking lot, I notice a woman stop to watch.
Seeing myself through her eyes—a 200-pound man visibly frustrated with the behavior of a seven-year-old—it gave me pause. I thought, This must be weird for her … because you certainly don’t see this every day.
I know that the woman was well-intentioned. By standing by, she was communicating to me that she was watching out for my children—and that she was willing to hold me accountable. And yet simultaneously, she was communicating that these types of parent-child interactions are not welcome in public spaces.
At that moment, I grappled with two conflicting impulses: the first was rooted in embarrassment. I wanted to end the whole affair, and hustle all the kids into Target and to pretend the whole thing never happened. The second impulse was to finish my lecture. After all, I was correcting my child’s behavior exactly as I would at home. What did I have to be embarrassed about?
The whole situation, the anger, the embarrassment, and the self-questioning got me to thinking: was I out of line? Should I have waited until we got home? And if we always discipline behind closed doors, how does anyone know what appropriate discipline looks like when you’re angry?
Culture is nebulous and ever-changing. It is communicated through a series of acts and observations. Despite some formal checks and balances, culture is more acquired than learned outright. As such, what is normal is a question of what you’re exposed to. The same is true of child maltreatment. There is little, if any, agreement as to what precisely constitutes maltreatment of children.
So how are we supposed to know what is normal and acceptable discipline, if we are never exposed to other parents’ disciplinary styles? We have pushed discipline so far behind closed doors that there are no longer any common rules for disciplining children—particularly when you, yourself, feel pushed to your limits.
Modern fathers blaze new trails in important ways.
First, most of us do not grow up with dads who were as involved in the day-to-day running of the house as we are. As a result, my dad’s advice would be so woefully out of date, that I’m often not even willing to broach the subject of behavior or discipline with him for fear of getting my own stern lecture.
Second, dads lack the firmly entrenched social networks mothers have spent generations cultivating. And while I’m sure that this comes with its own stress and pressures, it also comes with the exchange of parenting tools and techniques that can provide a valuable perspective. Moreover, for generations, dads have often been “The Heavy.” After all, the threat usually goes, “Wait until your father comes home,” not your mom. So while moms report feeling more judgment around things like messy houses, or unkempt kids, as a dad, I notice I own my kids’ poor behavior more than my partner does.
So I look to social cues, but there I find conflicting messages: too lax, and you’re the “horror story” parent who’s responsible for the ban on children in that crappy, overpriced tourist trap in Monterey, CA; but too harsh, and others will tell you you’re breaking your child’s spirit.
Parks don’t offer much additional insight into disciplinary best practices, either. Park parents, often moms, tend to focus more on conflict avoidance—entertaining endless negotiations, or finishing conversations with, “…sorry, I guess [my child] doesn’t feel like sharing today.” Social expectations do not require them to lay the smack down.
The result of failing to provide examples of how to manifest anger is that we live with the unrealistic standard of avoiding anger at all costs. Sesame Street teaches kids that anger is OK, but society teaches parents that it’s not anymore. The message seems to be that anger is an emotion that you grow out of. But that expectation is not reasonable and seems detrimental to effective parenting for two reasons.
First, we don’t learn from our peers what healthy, acceptable, effective, motivating anger looks like. So when we get angry in public, we stifle that anger. As a result, it’s difficult for a child to know when she has crossed a line—and parents lose their negotiating power. Second, when I get angry, I spend the rest of the day feeling such a sense of failure. After all, Caillou’s mom would never ask Caillou what the hell he was thinking—and holy man, if there was ever a mom who had an excuse to go off the rails, it’s Caillou’s mom.
So what does effective anger look like? Is it stern? Does it allow for yelling? How about spanking? I don’t think we have the gamut of observations to know. In the meantime, I will continue to try to create some cultural norms around anger expression. My train wreck parenting will be on display for all well-meaning Target shoppers to see. It might not be how you want to discipline, but at least you’ll have an idea of what one other, non-spanking, part-time stay at home dad does to keep his cool while flipping out at his highly-spirited seven-year-old.