Kozo Hattori confesses his biggest failure (so far) as a father.
I swatted my older son across the back of the head the other day—twice. One slap was so hard that I felt a soft throbbing in the palm of my hand.
Jett was in a foul mood one day after school. When I offered him numerous snacks, he replied, “I don’t want that; it’s yucky.”
I gave up and offered my younger son some chips and salsa.
“Why does he get chips and salsa? I want chips and salsa,” Jett screamed.
When I gave him some chips, he smashed them into little bits on the table.
“What are you doing, Jett?” I yelled.
Then he started wringing his hands in the bowl of salsa.
I took a deep breath and put my hands on my heart and stomach to try to calm down.
I refused to engage in his defiant behavior and said, “Jett, if you want to put spicy salsa on your skin, go ahead, but don’t start crying when it seeps into an old cut.”
When I looked up again, he was flinging salsa in his younger brother’s eyes. This is where I lost it.
As the survivor of physical abuse who promised himself that he would never hit his children; as a researcher, speaker, and writer on raising compassionate boys; and as a long time meditator, this act of violence made me question who I was and what the hell I’ve been doing for the past few years.
Just because I write this weekly column doesn’t mean I claim to be an expert on parenting. In fact, I distrust anyone who claims to be an expert on parenting, God, or human behavior. I’m just an imperfect human trying to raise loving and healthy sons. I share these experiences to better understand them and perhaps to help others who have similar struggles and concerns.
One of my favorite sayings used to be “God only gives us what we can handle.” Now I’m starting to think God gives us more than we can handle, so we give up the illusion that we are “experts” who can handle everything by ourselves.
What happened after the two slaps confirmed for me that I was still on the right path. I felt my son’s suffering and carried him to the bathroom for his bath. He was screaming, “No, Daddy. I don’t want Daddy.”
When I put him in the bathtub, he put his head between his knees and sobbed with his hands covering his ears and temples. I felt horrible because this is how I used to cry after I got beaten.
I saw how dirty his feet were, so I started to wash them with warm soapy water. This action surprised Jett and seemed to soothe him.
Soon, I was gently washing his whole body.
“I’m so sorry, son. Daddy made a bad decision,” I whispered into his ear as I gently rinsed the side of his head where I had hit him. Jett’s whole body seemed to soften as I gently kissed his head.
“Why did you throw salsa into Fox’s eyes,” I asked softly.
“I don’t know. I was mad,” Jett replied looking down.
“Daddy also got mad. Maybe we can do something different when we are mad rather than hit others or throw salsa,” I said. “Do you like the water?”
“Yes, it feels good,” Jett replied.
“Maybe next time we get mad, we will take a bath together?”
“Ok, Daddy.” Jett smiled.
Later that night, Jett told me to make sure to say good night to him before he went to bed.
At bedtime, he hugged me and said, “I love you, Daddy.”
This is the type of conversation I never had with my step-father. I hope in some small way, Jett saw that I am not an expert—that I make mistakes. I also tried to model for him what to do when we mess up. I hope he experienced the power of apology and the value of planning for future screw ups.
The second thing that happened after the blow up felt like God talking to me.
The very next day, Jett got mad at Fox for touching his toys and punched him in the chest. Later that day, Jett threatened his younger brother, “you better stop talking, or I’m going to punch you in the head.”
A few days later, my wife informed me that Jett punched a little girl in the stomach when they were at the park.
The message couldn’t be clearer—violence begets violence. I had role modeled for Jett what to do when one gets frustrated. Now I had to make amends.
“Jett, how did you feel after you hit that girl in the park?” I asked with my hand on his shoulder.
“Not good,” Jett replied staring at his hands.
“I felt horrible after I hit you the other day. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t,” I explained. “Daddy doesn’t like losing control like that. That is why I meditate. Maybe we can both meditate more, so we don’t have to feel so awful after losing control again,” I offered.
Since that day, Jett has been willingly meditating 7-10 minutes every other day. He no longer asks me, “why do I have to meditate.”
I have no idea if Jett will continue hitting his younger brother or other kids. I have no idea if I will be able to control my anger and never hit my son again, but it feels good to know that we are partners actively trying to break a cycle that has been passed down for generations. I have no doubt that we will make mistakes on this journey, but I am comforted in the knowledge that if we do slip up, we have a precedent of what to do and how to re-connect.
Someone once told me that the Dalai Lama’s brother used to live with him at the monastery when he was young, but the monks sent the brother home because the two brothers used to fight and rough house too much.
I don’t think raising compassionate boys is about raising boys who never let their emotions get the best of them. On the contrary, I welcome powerful emotions in my sons, but I want to give them the tools to identify and regulate these emotions, so they don’t end up hitting their sons in the future.