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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Jamming on the brakes

I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect most of the people who drop by here each day do so in order to vicariously experience some of the stuff that I see in my daily Israeli life. The caveat, of course is that by ‘experience’ I believe most of you want to catch a brief, sterile glimpse of the world through my eyes… and perhaps a get ‘few’ words of commentary for context… and then be on your merry way.

Nice and neat.

I sincerely doubt that many of you are interested in what goes on behind my eyes… the inconsistency, the self-doubt, the struggle to keep all the balls in the air. After all, these are problems that we all face, regardless of nationality, race, gender, creed, etc.

For that reason, I’m giving you a chance, here and now, to run away and spend some quality time with the folks at Doonesbury or Dilbert, and leave me here wiping messy cry-snot off the front of my shirt.

Still here? Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance!

Here’s my problem: I’m a parent. I won’t try to modify that with meaningless words like ‘good’ or ‘bad’, because I think everyone with kids believes deep down that they are ‘good parents’. However, the world is full of f*cked-up kids who grow up to be card-carrying sociopaths, so clearly a few of us are mistaken.

The past 18 hours has been very hard going for me because my two big kids decided to cross a number of red lines all at once (or at least I became aware of said line-crossing all at once). They really are basically good kids, but when nobody is looking, they can be vicious to one another! In this case, I found out that there has been a fairly constant give-and-take of verbal abuse, pinching, punching, and sin-of-sins: punching private parts!

When Zahava brought this to my attention last night, all my circuit breakers blew... I completely lost my mind!

The glands where the fight-or-flight/ papa-bear adrenaline is stored... you know, the stuff that is normally reserved for when someone threatens your kid... suddenly dumped a double dose into my system because it turns out that my kids have been knocking the crap out of each other!!!

I was angry because I hadn’t noticed this side of them before. I was angry because the ongoing conflict had hurt them both. But most of all I was angry because it seemed to be a horrible replay of the way my older sister and I used to carry on!

The old fury that I used to feel when my sister would smack me around was only surpassed by the blood-behind-the-eyes rage I used to experience when my parents seemed to invariably catch me retaliating. All that old anger and helplessness came rushing back as I confronted my two little combatants, and I allowed the wave of emotions to completely carry me away.

I took away prized possessions. I revoked hard earned privileges. I impounded allowances and repossessed bicycles. In a fit of spitefulness I grappled for the most cutting punishments I could think of, and then surpassed them in meanness.

When the smoke had cleared my wife stood looking at me as thought I’d lost my mind (I had), and my children stood stranded in a vast, trackless desert of punishment, with no hope of redemption.

One of the familial diseases that I inherited (and have left largely untreated) is the inability to transition smoothly from anger to rapprochement. After minor altercations a mumbled apology is sometimes possible. But more often than not, the page is simply turned and an unspoken (one-sided) bargain is struck to never reread (or relive) the previous chapter.

My dreams last night were filled with visions of visiting my children in prison, and caseworkers calmly explaining to me how I had set them on the road to the cellblock with my senseless cruelty. The worst part of the dream was that my children’s words from behind the thick iron bars were the very ones they had said through their tears in the living room:

“We’re sorry Abba [the Hebrew word for ‘father’], we know we were wrong… and we know that you are only punishing us so that we will grow up to be better people.”

In my dream, the words are a knife that turns horribly in my heart, just as it had in our living room. The endless dream-world jail sentence that had resulted from my failure as a parent was such a heavy burden that I couldn’t breath from it’s weight!

By 5:00AM when the dream finally tossed me out into the twisted grip of my sweat-soaked sheets, I was hopelessly ashamed of my behavior. I stumbled into the office that sits off of our bedroom and tried to immerse myself in other people’s thoughts... but a snippet of conversation that Beth had recounted on her blog kicked the legs out from under my already wobbly psyche:

“Watching the local news in Dallas, I heard that a 12 year old girl had shot and killed her mother, allegedly for grounding her.
A couple of days later while on the road home I asked [my partner]:
If you raise a child who at the age of 12 will shoot you for grounding them – do you deserve to be shot?”

On the best of days I don’t believe in coincidences! That bullet found its mark, and I couldn’t manage more than a few words throughout the rest of my morning preparations.

As I wordlessly ushered the kids through their morning routine, yesterday’s words echoed noiselessly around the living room and kitchen, scolding me more than them. The pale swatches on their skinny wrists screamed muted accusations at me over the watches I had taken away in my fit of anger, and the bicycles that I passed on my way to the car scolded me for having senselessly removed their beloved riders.

The last thing Ariella asked me before I got in the car was if she would ever be able to earn back some of the things I had taken from her. I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t even answer her… and then spent the entire drive to work sick with the realization that she must have taken my silence for a resounding ‘no’. What the hell is wrong with me???

I had a sleeping group of soldiers and schoolgirls in the car with me for my ride to work, so my mind had silent, unfettered access to the torture tools… and it made productive use of the hour spent driving in silence.

By the time I reached work, I barely had time to lock myself in my office before the kind of suffocating, hiccupping cry that I haven’t had since I was a kid crashed over me in wave after relentless wave.

Zahava’s telepathy must have been turned on (when isn’t it?) because she telephoned just as I was using my shirttail to try and make my face presentable. She asked me a bunch of questions that could be answered monosyllabically, and then mercifully let me off the phone. She knew… she had to have known.

Zahava and I have different parenting approaches, both of which I tend to think of in automotive terms.

I tend to let the kids coast downhill, and apply the brakes hard only when I see them straying onto the shoulder or going into a turn too fast. Zahava is a more cautious driver (parent) by nature and seems to prefer to pump the brakes more frequently… taking comfort in the reassuring illusion of control that constantly testing the brakes gives her.

Both methods have their good and bad points. I’m of the opinion that overusing the brakes wears them down, reducing their effectiveness and making it difficult to become comfortable with the natural handling characteristics of the car (kids). Zahava seems to feel that if you wait until an emergency to jam on the brakes, you end up splashing hot coffee all over the windshield and losing control of the vehicle (situation).

Last night I really jammed on the brakes… an old fashioned, Dukes of Hazard power slide… and caused a hell of an accident. I’m starting to think that there might be some compromise between our braking (parenting) styles… but that the optimal method probably lies closer to Zahava's way of doing things than mine.

If only children were cars and came with an owner’s manual!

I still have no idea what I’m going to say to everyone when I get home.

[Note to self: Leave an extra clean shirt in the office]

Posted by David Bogner on October 14, 2004 | Permalink

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Poor Dave....Having met your fam (and seen the parenting methods at play) and having been a kid not so long ago myself with parents who had similar parenting methods (well, my dad's was more bury his head in the sand), I promise your kids will NOT end up in jail over this. Though one little brother has done some time in the pokey, but he was on his way there as a baby.

If your kids understand why they were punished, they are likely understanding enough to forgive your fly-off-the-handle attack. And maybe, since they do know you, they'll realize that what they did was obviously severe enough in your eyes to warrant such a punishment.

Maybe explain to them why you got so angry...and give them back their watches. I, for one, know Ari has 4 of them.

Posted by: Noa | Oct 14, 2004 5:05:15 PM

Oh great, Noa... Reassure me that they won't end up in Jail and then let it slip that your bro ended up in the hoosegow!

Do me a favor and promise me you won't volunteer on the Suicide Hotline!

Seriously, though... Thanks for the thoughts.

Posted by: David | Oct 14, 2004 5:17:21 PM

David,

Children bring out a passion in parents. They reach deep inside your heart and soul into the tiny little places that you never knew existed before they were born.

Emotions that tap into that passion are very strong and if this incident came because you were concerned about their welfare then you should remind yourself of that.

You didn't act the way you did because you don't care, but because you do. As parents we all have our moments of regret, you can't handle every situation perfectly.

I can still remember one of my mistakes. I won't bore you with the whole story, suffice it to say that I took apart a train track that my son had worked for hours upon.

I did it because I needed him to understand the seriousness of the incident and because I was angry with him.

What made me sad was the look on his face in combination with knowing that my anger took down something he was proud of. It hurts me to think of it.

But in retrospect, even if I hadn't been angry I would have probably had to take the track apart because at that time there was no other way to get through to him and make sure that he understood.

Anyway, in the interest of trying to make this more concise, remember that fathers are allowed to over react. We are allowed to make mistakes and none of these things mean that our children grow up to Yigal Amir, Charles Manson or even Bucky the burglar.

You are aware of what happened and you can work on acting differently if the situation ever arises again.

Don't be so hard on yourself.

P.S. Sorry for the length of this.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 14, 2004 5:43:35 PM

Our friends are always telling us we are too hard on our son (we also have 3 younger daughters). They say he is such a good boy, why do we yell? Why do we potch? I see a lot of my friends' kids running around like animals. I see them misbehaving with no consequences. "Oh, they are just little kids. Let them be." One "little kid" is 11 years old and kicks and hits other kids when they win games or irritate him. If my son did that there would be instant punishment.

The other night my husband was yelling at my son about something. About his homework and not telling the truth about it. I was so upset at the yelling and the apparent stupidity of my son, that I snapped his Gameboy in half. Instantly, I was sorry. He didn't deserve that. He certainly spends too much time on it, but he didn't deserve what I did. I did it out of anger and frustration. The wrong reasons always for punishment. The look on his beautiful face was too much for me. I had to leave his room. I came back later to tell him I would buy him a new one as soon as I could.

Posted by: Yetta | Oct 14, 2004 6:04:21 PM

Dear David,

Your story brings back thoughts I had forgotten for a very long time. My mother used to be (and still is) the best mother in the world. It took a very long time to upset her. Do you know what the biggest punishment was, if I really had brought her to this point? Not to talk to me any more.
At any of my ages, this was the most cruel thing she could do. And I was creeping around her, waiting for a sentence. Today I know that she herself never learned how to react in these situations and I know that she did not mean it like that.
Do you want to get a recommendation? Just put the bicycles and all other stuff back to their old place. Your kids will understand it. Sometimes actions are better than words.

Posted by: Sandra | Oct 14, 2004 6:07:48 PM

David:

See my "Broken Sword" post on Foster Boy about how I lost it.

I hate to pile on but anger and over-punishment rarely works. With my younger son (15), the best approach is to talk quietly and drop the 'pahst nisht' trip on him.

Kids generally seek their parents approval (even if they don't show it) and strive to make them proud (there are exceptions). All anger does is model bad behavior for kids.

I once read a fabulous short story that made a huge impression (I can't remember where). A kid and a couple of his friends smashed someone's outdoor shed (or something like that). His friends' fathers each beat the cr*p out of them when they got to the scene. His father didn't say a word, left, came back fifteen minutes later with his tools and some wood, and repaired the shed. His father never said one word. That episode made an impression on this kid, the author, that he never forgot.

On another note: perhaps I will see you over the next couple of weeks in EY!

Posted by: MO Chassid | Oct 14, 2004 9:50:43 PM

I'm having a hard time picking between crying with you, and laughing hysterically. When I read "the pale swatches on their skinny wrists" I was more than a little shocked, so when I saw that the swatches were from missing watches and not a ruler, I actually did laugh out loud.

I hope you know me well enough to know that's not meant to be condescending. You just have such a huge heart. Half of my friends were beaten with belts as kids (not abuse, just spanking) and never heard an apology, yet didn't grow up to be axe murderers (um, as far as I know...) and still very much adore their parents.

Not having kids, I can only guess from experience: as long as you hug them next time you see them and let them know you don't hate them, there won't be any lingering emotional scars from this. (And you might still get a few free days of good behavior for going postal!)

Since you have a sister, you already know the fighting will pass. My brother and I beat the tar out of each other as kids, but we had grown up into good friends before we began high school.

Posted by: Tanya | Oct 14, 2004 10:30:03 PM

David,

I am very moved.

You are, from all I can tell, such a good man that your flare-up from last night will not turn your kids into monsters. They see the good man you are during all the mundane days, and that makes the biggest impression of all.

You haven't asked for advice, so I will humbly offer my opinion: if you were to sit down and express your remorse to your children as sincerely as you just expressed it to all of us, then rescinded your punishments, it would do far more good than you might realize. They will forgive you so fast your head would spin. You are often too hard on yourself, but we are all human and if you apologize for making a mistake you will teach your children what it means to be mature ....

Posted by: Jim | Oct 15, 2004 12:48:16 AM

Dear David,

A very wise woman once told me the relationship between parents and kids is like a bank account. You make deposits daily and accure intrest. Sometimes you make a whopper of a withdrawal but the account is still in the black.

We need to model behaviour for our kids. We need to show them how to fix things things when they inevitablly mess up. Ask mechila and then decide if the consequence of thier behaviour has been met out and then go on loving them from there.

We've all been there.

Love you lots.

Marjorie

Posted by: Marjorie | Oct 15, 2004 2:05:02 AM

David,
I need to go change my PJs now b/c they are all wet and full of tears. Tonite is my mothers first yartzheit, and I was already kind of weepy, thinking about her. Your blog entry just made me cry more. You are not a bad father. Your kids still love you, and what is more, they are lucky to have a parent who cares that much. I acted out (beat the crap out of my little sister)a LOT as a kid, but I like to think I grew into a woman that my parents are proud of. Try a hug, you would be amazed at how well that will open the floodgates of communication.

Posted by: Faye | Oct 15, 2004 2:42:16 AM

How horrible for all of you, I'm so sorry.

Over-reacting is not an irredeemable mistake. You can make it up to them. The main thing is, your kids' hearts are very definitely in the right place, and that's the part of parenting that really matters. So, well done.

What I would do is, explain why watching two people you love dearly hurting each other made you react so strongly, apologise for over-reacting, say you changed your mind about the bicycles and the watches, tell them to ask for adult help with negotiating next time they can't solve a problem with each other, and announce that you're all going out to your favourite restaurant for a fun family evening to cheer everyone up.

It is annoying about that instruction book, I agree :-)

Posted by: Alice | Oct 15, 2004 3:28:29 AM

A heartfelt thank you to one and all who slogged through my little pity party and offered up sensible, time-tested advice.

When I got home last night my wife had (luckily) already read my post so she was feeling less inclined to smack me in the head with a cast iron skillet. The kids were sort of slinking around the periphery of my presense (like you would with a normally friendly dog that has just taken a bite out of your *ss)... not sure if there was a way to get back into the warm embrace of my affections. The first little sign from me brought hugs and fervent promises of better behavior.

After private consultation with Zahava, we decided to give them each back their watches before Shabbat... mostly because so much of their lives are time-dependent. We will then explain to them that things like youth groups, piano lessons, and such will return right away, while some of the other things (like bikes and allowance) will return over time as they prove that they can get along respectfully with each other.

Just as I make (mostly empty) promises from time to time not to turn treppenwitz into a political forum... I promise here and now not to make a habit of using my journal in place of (apparently much needed) psychiatric intervention.

Oh, I also apologize for the horrible spelling. I've fixed most of the problems... but as I've mentioned before, I am dyslexic and have a lot of trouble with spelling and numbers - especially when tired or emotional. Yesterday was the double-whammy!

Now, can we all just pretend that I didn't admit to the entire world what a crybaby I am???

Posted by: David | Oct 15, 2004 9:59:58 AM

> Now, can we all just pretend that
> I didn't admit to the entire world
> what a crybaby I am???

Um, no. But we still like you.

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | Oct 15, 2004 12:40:28 PM

Congratulations, David! This description showed that your kids are completely normal. The fact that they showed remorse at their behavior was the biggest clue. When they stop showing remorse is the time to worry.

About the overreaction on your part (which sounded like nothing short of a nuclear meltdown), speaking as a person who has unresolved issues from her own childhood, talking to someone about it is a good thing.

Now pardon me while I go wipe my eyes and blow my nose.

Shabbat Shalom!

Posted by: jennifer | Oct 15, 2004 12:56:11 PM

What Jim said: a great opportunity for some positive modelling of mature behaviour - how to apologise (which opportunity you have since taken up). Where your kids are so lucky is that you are able to be reflective and acknowledge it when you stuff up. I'm not advocating stuffing up *deliberately* or anything, but they do need to learn how to handle it when they do it (and we all do), so it is kinda lucky that you do have stuff ups occasionally, don't you think?

And What Andy said: "Um, no. But we still like you."

And ditto to all the comments about laughing and crying.

And lastly re your sincere doubt "that many of [us] are interested in what goes on behind [your] eyes… " - how wrong you are. That's what I'm *most* interested in.

Posted by: Kay McCulloch | Oct 16, 2004 2:59:38 AM

Oh David, I only have to leave out ONE day of reading Treppenwitz and I miss out on the most relevant post and discussion... I'm sniffing back tears too but they're from self pity!

Being a mother of three adolescents and one proto-adolescent kindergarten monster I know SO well what you describe and ... being a stomping Choleric once in a while myself I went through orgies of attrition myself... who didn't? There's an ootzli gootzli in every parent waiting to jump out.

What you said about your sister and yourself touched me most. Our childhood memories, sibling memories!, can still hurt so much. Especially when your children re-live them. It's hard to deal with such overwhelming emotions. Don't be so hard on yourself.

I agree with everything your kind and clever readers said. Your children have a caring, loving father who has strong opinions and emotions. They understand that you care enough about their behavior to get really mad if they misbehave badly. Believe me, they will remember this and it's good that they do. They will know that what they did was really wrong, wrong enough to make a very kind father forget himself with anger. Don't let your feeling bad about yourself wipe out the important message you gave them: there are red lines, and if you cross them, bad things happen.

Parenting is such an emotional roller coster. I'm sure by now everything is back again into smooth routine. I will read your post and the comments with my dh once he's awake... Thank you for sharing this with us.

Posted by: Lila | Oct 16, 2004 7:43:15 AM

My mom really lost it with me a couple of times, but in retrospect I can see clearly that it was out of a love for me that I can't really understand the depths of, and I had such a great power to hurt her that I didn't understand at all.

Anyway, if you never make mistakes, how do you think your kids will forgive themselves for theirs, whenever their parents, or even have the guts to have kids in the first place?

Posted by: Tara | Oct 17, 2004 12:55:37 AM

Oops, I meant "they're"

Posted by: Tara | Oct 17, 2004 12:56:01 AM

Hey David,

You are a heck of a guy.......for a guy :)
Miss talkin to ya about music and the big picture.

Lisa

Posted by: val | Oct 17, 2004 2:18:51 AM

I read an article years and years and years ago - an interview with Michelle Pfeiffer a few years after she adopted her first child. She said (paraphrased, obviously) "Every time I make a mistake with my daughter, I put a dollar in a jar. When she's 18, I'm going to give her the jar and say 'Here. I love you. I did my best. This is for therapy.'"

Posted by: Tanya | Oct 17, 2004 2:41:46 AM

Sorry I'm late to this entry - it's a fantastic one! I felt terrible that my offhand post made you feel bad!

I have no doubt that you two are wonderful parents, a truly terrible parent wouldn't have a single second thought about being hard on their kids!

I like Tanya's idea about the jar for therapy. I always joke that I'll start a therpy fund and not a college fund - there are scholarships for college but not therapy :-)

Posted by: Beth | Oct 17, 2004 4:02:57 AM

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