This’ll Hurt Me More . . .

Despite what nearly every child and young adult in the entire world most certainly believes, parents do not like to punish their kids.  I admit to being a parent with relatively high behavioral expectations of my children, especially my school age child, who has taken his first step into world citizenship.  Sometimes remaining clear and consistent in those expectations and reliably following through with the consequences that naturally occur when those behavior expectations are not met, often make me a very weary Daddy come 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  I also get really tired of the phony baritone of my own boring-ass authoritative voice, and with the perpetual counting of “oooonnnne . . . . . twwoooooooo . . . . .

And my kids are not difficult kids, I realize this.  But difficult or not, children of any disposition need to live within a set of clear boundaries, and when those boundaries are challenged or crossed, no matter how seemingly trivial, the naturally occurring consequences need to kick in, or the kids will slowly learn that Daddy doesn’t always mean what he says, and that sometimes rules can be broken without the consequences.  And this will almost certainly become the eternal quest as the child grows up.  What can I acutally get away with?  Breaking trivial rules (no snacks on the living room carpet) will very quickly morph into major ones (no attending parties where there is drinking) if kids learn at a very early age that the potential fun is worth the gamble.  When I’m on my A-game, there is no gamble.  A bad decision means a naturally occuring consequence.  End of story.  The kids can’t be surprised if they knew it was coming.

This theory is, however, enormously difficult to sustain with integrity.  For a number of reasons.  Firstly, the naturally occurring consequence sometimes come at the expense of something the entire family wanted to do (“Guess we’re not going to the pool/movie/park/restaurant.”)  And when the kids are having a lousy day, it can mean that Daddy spends the whole day policing and enforcing.  That gets extraoridnarily exhausting, and quick.

But more than anything, every time I have to enforce a rule and follow through on a consequence, it literally breaks my heart into a million pieces.  Last night, for instance.  Yesterday we went on one of our “urban adventures,” jumping on the train and being tourists in our own city for a day.  These days are always wonderful, and this was no exception.  But when we came home, the kids, gloriously overtired from the exuberance of the glorious day, lost all sense of self control.  Despite this, I had told them that we would end the day with an evening swim in their blow-up kiddy pool after dinner and after the chores were done.  By the end of the evening, dinner was hardly touched and the chores were only half-attempted.  But me, too tired to engage any more microscopic parenting wars, decided that it was “good enough” and threw on the kids suits, and we we headed out to swim.

We unwound the hose, and aimed it into the tiny rubber pool, and I said to my 5 year-old (who loves to fill the pool with the hose) “OK, keep the hose in the pool, and no spraying your sister.  She doesn’t like it.  If you spray your sister with the hose, you’ll have to get out of the pool.  Got it?”

He nodded.  “Got it.”

So he stepped into the pool, where his two-year old little sister was already waiting.  I handed him the hose. went around the house to turn it on, came back just in time to see him aiming the hose straight at his sister’s head, who proceeded to scream bloody murder and trip out of the pool and into the grass as she tried to get away.

“Um.  What did I just say?”

“No spraying sister with the hose.”

“What did you just do?”

“Sprayed her with the hose.”

OK.  Standoff time.  To enforce or not to enforce?  The sister was fine.  In fact, she was already smiling again and clambering into the tiny pool again.  No real harm done.  And giving them a chance to play in the water would be such a nice way to end such a good day.  And my son loves nothing more than playing in the water with his sister, or anyone for that matter.

If I let him get away with it, it’ll make my night so much easier, he’ll go to bed happy and he’ll feel nothing but love for me and happiness for his day and for his happy life.  Isn’t that what we all want for our children? 

And if I let him get away with it I would be, of course, a chump and he would recognize and remember that.  And I would be sacrificing the future on the altar of the present.  Sigh.  So, here we go:

“Out of the pool.”

And his heart broke, loudly, and he apologized sincerely, and told me he would cooperate from now on and he begged to be able to swim and he cried like I haven’t seen him cry since god-knows-when.  He simply couldn’t believe that I was going to hold my line, and not let him splash around in the beautiful evening with his sister.  Truth is, for much of the time, I wasn’t sure if I was going to hold my line.  We sat in the lawn chairs while sister played in the water (she hadn’t broken any rule, so she still got to play, fair and sqaure) and he cried and begged and apologized, and he seemed deeply sad, and as I watched him I felt instant guilt and regret for “making him feel this way.”  <——— (See how we do this to ourselves as parents?  Somehow, his poor choice in the face of clear consequences ended up with me feeling like I had done something to “make him feel this way.”)  Here is how my emotional inner monologue usually goes in these situations:  I am a nearly 40 year old Dad of two young children.  Because of this they are going to spend much more of my remaining life hating me as teenagers then they are loving me as children or enjoying me as adults.  There is a very good possibility that I will never met my grandchildren.  Sometimes, this emotional truth threatens to override my rational parenting self.  I went over my options.  Do I let him sit at the the edge of the pool for ten minutes and then let him get in?  Do make him “promise” that he’ll “listen better” “next time” and let him enjoy the pool tonight?  It was, honestly, very tempting.  It would be so much easier to endure than the heartbreak.

I could do any or all of these things, and by doing so, would be contributing to a cycle of manipulation based on emotion and guilt rather than actual, rational parenting and I’d be doing both myself and my son and the greater world a large disservice.  So I bit the bullet and stuck to it.  And he recovered, of course.  And we agreed we’d have another go tomorrow and see if we can make some better choices.  He still went to sleep happily and sugly tucked into bed by a father who loves him deeply.

“This’ll hurt me more than it hurts you.”  This has truth to it.  But we have to get better about parenting beyond the moment.  We need to get better at parenting for the moments after we, the parents, are long gone from this world.

Parenting involves difficult decisions, and many difficult decisions that are going to upset our children and break our hearts as parents.  In situations like these, when I can see the heartbreak in my kids face, or when I worry about my kids hating me as teenagers, I always try to remind myself of a bit of advice I recieved from one of the grandmothers at my church when my first son was just a tiny breath of a boy.

“Our jobs as parents are to love our children, not to make them love us.”

Yes.  And love is an act.  Not a feeling.  And that act of loving is very hard work.