Sultan of Swat

This is a tough post to write but I’m going ahead with it because one of the reasons I started this blog about being a Stay At Home Dad was to use it as a way to be reflective about what I’m doing as a parent. To learn from both the successes and the failures. Over the 14 years I’ve been a SAHD (and the six years before that as a middle school teacher) I’ve done a pretty decent job of keeping my cool. I’m a pretty laid-back guy and I try my best to be patient with everyone, especially my children. Any parent knows that kids can really test you and pester you and do stuff that shouldn’t get on your nerves, but it still does. It’s my experience that this is exacerbated for the at-home parent of small children who often deals with the seemingly endless requests to do this or that from the moment the little ones wake up until the moment they (finally!) go to sleep. Sure, I try to get my little ones to learn patience but, well, herding cats sometimes seems like it might be easier.

Well, rewind to a few days ago, Thursday, to be exact. It was a routine Spring day for us that was highlighted by a trip to a local park to enjoy some of the nice weather.

Playing at the park

Playing at the park

We had an early dinner without my wife, who stayed late to work, so we could be on time to meet her at my 15 year old daughter’s high school water polo game at 6:20 pm. Even though my M, four year old, very thoughtfully served some spaghetti to J, her 22 month old sister, while I finished cooking dinner (yeah, that onesie may not ever come clean), we were on target to leave the house to be, gasp!, ten minutes early for the game. The final hurdle to conquer was changing the J’s diaper. Piece of cake for this seasoned veteran. Or so I thought. As I laid J down on the changing table I noticed M trying to climb up the end of it. I asked her to please get down. Moments later M was standing bedside me at the changing table, trying to tickle her sister. I asked her to please stop. (I’m patient and well-mannered, thankyouverymuch!) Within the next 30 seconds as I was trying to wipe J’s butt and place the clean diaper under her I must have asked M three or four more times to please stop poking, tickling or otherwise prodding her sister because every time she did that her sister would twist her body impossibly as only toddlers on changing tables can do and I’d have to rearrange the diaper all over again. Exhale. I could feel myself getting a little worked up as I asked, for the sixth time in about a minute and a half, for M to Please. Stop. Touching. Her.

SWAT! 

8d8718e763a4a1392f460e9efec731ed35ea1a2eThat’s what I did to her hand as she reached to poke, tickle or prod her sister that one last time. It wasn’t a “hit”, but it might as well have been. And in that moment of frustration I lost my patience with my adorable four year old and violated one of my cardinal rules of parenting: never, ever, under any circumstances, lay a hand on my child in anger or frustration. I felt like smelly poo. How could I have done this to my child? She pulled her hand back and looked into my eyes, giant tears already forming in her eyes. Not as much from the physical pain but more from the fact that I’d swatted her hand out of frustration. I dropped to a knee to be at her eye level and immediately told her how very wrong it was for me to do that to her and I asked her earnestly to forgive me. Through her tears she nodded yes and, as we embraced, hot tears flowed from my eyes as they burned my cheeks. We talked about it some more right then as I finished getting the diaper on J and while we headed to the car.

It’s been just over 48 hours since I became, in my own mind at least, the Sultan of Swat. And I’ve been beating myself up over my lack of self-control and momentary lapse the whole time. It cannot happen again. Period. There is no room to justify my actions by thinking, “If she had listened in the first place…” Nope. Not even remotely an excuse. Yet, I have to be able to forgive myself in order to move on. M forgave me so now I need to do the same. Yet, I can still learn from this experience. While I am a pretty patient parent, I need to realize that I do, indeed, have a breaking point. If/when I feel myself approaching that point I need to do an internal “lemon squeeze” like my kids were taught in elementary school or slowly count to ten. Looking back on this particular incident, I should have counted M using the 1-2-3 Magic discipline system that we’ve used with all of our children for the last 15+ years. (I think I’m going to reread that book this week.) Had I done that, the situation would not have escalated and there would have been no swat. In the end, I have to learn from this mistake, forgive myself and remember that I’m not perfect. After all, imperfection is part of the human condition.

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Water into Wine

I witnessed a crime before it happened but I didn’t do anything about it. Okay, maybe I’m getting the cart a little ahead of the horse, but not by much. Let me explain. On the way home from a doctor’s appointment I stopped at a market to pick up some locally-grown apples and pears. As we (my two youngest children and I) were driving out of the parking lot I happened to notice a man standing next to his car opening a bottle of wine (probably purchased at this market). What made this unusual sighting almost criminal was the empty water bottle sitting on the roof of his car next to where was standing. It didn’t really hit me as to what he was doing until I was almost a block away waiting to turn into traffic. Putting two and two together, I surmised that this guy was going to get behind the wheel of his car and drink from his water bottle while he was driving. Only he wasn’t going to be drinking water. This realization made me really mad as I immediately thought of my childhood friend Beth, who was killed by a drunk driver when she was only 12.

Sitting at a red light a couple of blocks later I thought about going back to confront the guy before he started driving. I decided not to go back for several reasons: he might already be gone; he could react violently and maybe pull out a gun; I had two young kids in the car with me; I had a lot to do in the next 2 hours before heading to the airport to get my brother; blah blah blah. But it didn’t feel right. As I thought about it more on the rest of my drive home I started to question why I chose to not say or do anything…and what that might say about me. I consider myself a person who is able to distinguish right from wrong and who is action-oriented. If I’m at the park with my kids and some teenagers come and start behaving obnoxiously or inappropriately, I don’t hesitate for a second to speak up. I do what I need to do to protect my kids. This situation was no different, really. While I didn’t technically witness any crime being committed, that man’s actions could have potentially injured others, including my kids. And yet, I was silent. Inactive.

I posted this scenario on my Facebook page and talked about it with my brother later on that afternoon. I think the consensus among them was that I should have intervened discreetly. Simply drive by him a second time, take a picture or video of him and his car and license plate, drive away and call 911. Inform the police and let them choose to get involved or not. It’s times like this where I find myself being more reflective as a parent and a human being. I’m not beating myself up over this situation but I’m learning from it. Hopefully it will better equip me for action down the road. What would you have done in this situation?

(This happened about six months ago and I wrote this post that evening but saved it as a draft…until now.)

Repeat after me…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been intrigued by both the NFL and Lean In attempting to persuade people to not use certain words. According to reports, the NFL is considering making it a penalty for a player to use the N-word on the field. Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and others have started a campaign to #banbossy. I know of other campaigns to ban words from our daily usage as well. While in high school, my oldest daughter alerted me to the campaign Spread the Word to Stop the Word in relation to the term retarded. I know there are other words that people or groups have tried to ban, also with perfectly legitimate reasons. However, I don’t want to debate the merit of any of these campaigns. I’d rather look at childhood language development since I’m viewing this through the lens of a dad with young children.

As a parent, and specifically as a SAHD (but this applies to any At Home parent) because I’m around my kids so much, I have a huge influence on the development of my children. I am fully aware of this critical role I play in their lives and that’s one of the many reasons I chose to become a SAHD over 13 years ago. One of the biggest areas of influence is in the words I choose to use with my kids. And in front of my kids. They learn how to talk and what words to use from how I speak around them. Back in 1998, when my oldest was only three years old, my younger brother brought his girlfriend to meet us all for the first time. At some point during their visit his girlfriend said “stupid” in a playful manner about something. My daughter heard it and told her very seriously, “We don’t say that word in our family.” To this day they still joke with my daughter about that incident (my little brother married her despite her potty mouth). I wish that I could report that the term “stupid” is never uttered in our house. The point of that cute story is to illustrate that language is learned and can be guided. I go back to my own childhood for a not-so-cute memory about the word nigger.

I remember being in the back seat of my grandpa’s large Buick sedan as we drove from Lake Michigan back to his house across town in Racine, Wisconsin. To get back to his house we had to go through a part of town that wasn’t middle-class white. Being born in 1902, my grandpa used the term nigger like it was no big deal when talking about black people. Although, in this particular instance he was using it in a rather derogatory manner because he probably felt threatened by the black people “taking over” his beloved city. Was he racist? Most likely. He died in 1990 when I was only 17 so I can’t really speak to his thoughts about black people. But, I can say that his use of that term was very jarring for me. It wasn’t a word we used in my house. Looking back at that memory makes me appreciate the fact that I never heard my own father use that term even though he grew up with a father who used it. My father chose to break away from the pattern of his childhood in how he raised his family. I’ll be forever grateful to him for that choice. I know plenty of people today who still use that term to try to express their hate and vitriol for black people. It’s probably one of the most loaded and vile words in the English language. Even typing the word nigger for this post makes me very uncomfortable. (My guess is that it makes you equally uncomfortable to read it and that’s the point!) It is a word that I don’t use and have never even typed before because it is so terribly offensive and hurtful. My nine year old son had never heard of the term when I asked him about it before writing this post. So, I explained a little bit about it and made him promise to never use that word and to speak up if he ever hears someone else use it. While a small piece of his childhood innocence was lost in that conversation I hope that I’ve begun to instill in him a sense of moral and civic responsibility to speak up when people use words like nigger (or retarded, faggot, homo, etc.) which are meant to hurt and demean others. I asked my 14 and 12 year old daughters if they knew what the term meant and they both told me that they learned about it in school from teachers. My 14 year old said, “I know it’s bad. Besides, it’s not like you and mom ever use that word.” So, since I don’t use the N-word at all, much less around my kids. I must be a great dad, right?

Not so fast! I’ve been fortunate enough to be a SAHD for many years. One of the things I get to do is drive my kids to/from school and all over the place as we do stuff together. While I don’t swear at all or beep my horn much, I do enjoy venting a little bit at the stupid (we don’t say that word, either!) drivers who are constantly surrounding me. It’s not even on the scale of road rage or anything like that. Just some good sarcastic humor to help me cope with their stupidity (sorry again). Only problem is that I’ve got ears in the back seat with a mouth that repeats. This point was illustrated not too long ago when my adorable three year old noticed the Prius ahead of us not moving when the light turned green. Naturally, she admonished the driver to go, saying “Come on old lady, find the gas pedal!”. While I was proud that she was contextually correct in the application of her language, I was appalled at what I’d just heard. When my daughter opened her mouth, I heard myself. Pretty sobering. It was at that moment that I decided that I needed to curb my comments, although once in a while a “Learn how to drive!” or “Roundabouts just aren’t that hard!” flies out of my pie-hole before I realize it.

By sharing these different stories I’m trying to raise awareness about the importance of the words we each choose to use. And yes, it’s a choice. How we talk to and in front of our children can, does and will influence what words they choose to use. It also tells a lot about the kind of person we each are on the inside. If we, as parents, would choose to use our words to build up and encourage one another instead of to tear down, then we wouldn’t need to have campaigns to ban certain words. And that starts at home with us, setting expectations for our children while being mindful of the influence that we have on their development. They’re always watching us and absorbing like big sponges. The bottom line is that our words have power.; the power to build up or the power to tear down. I’ll leave you with one last anecdote that just happened today. As we were driving, one of my older kids said the word “stupid” and my three year old said, “Oooh. You’re going to get in trouble. My daddy doesn’t allow his kids use that word!” Message received and delivered.

Bad Dad: Seeking Forgiveness

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Saturday started out on the right foot. I woke up and went to the YMCA to hit the elliptical machine for a 45 minute workout while my wife fed breakfast to our youngest children. Upon my return home I was back in charge of them so she could shower. Without going into the details, some of my older children got into a conflict while I was “in charge”. In a few moments of poor parenting I made some choices that I wish I could take back. But, since there’s no “EASY” button like in those Staples ads, I had to endure the consequences of my poor parenting choices. The peaceful Saturday morning had been shattered, replaced with a tension and uneasiness because I didn’t handle the conflict between two of my children appropriately. I actually caused it to escalate by my actions. With one of my kids crying in a bedroom and another with me in the kitchen while I fed my baby breakfast I began to realize the depth of my parenting failure that morning.

I started to replay the events in my mind, trying to justify my behavior so that I wouldn’t feel so bad about how I’d (mis)handled the conflict. Before I could get too far into that line of thinking my wife came into the kitchen to let me know that I’d royally screwed up that morning. She didn’t say it exactly that way, but that’s the version I’m sticking with. And I knew she was right. Even in my defensive state of mind I was still able to recognize truth. I knew that I needed to apologize to both of my kids for the way I had acted in response to their conflict. As a parent, I’m usually able to keep my cool and respond appropriately. In this instance, I had failed to do that and had failed them. I knew better. And they deserved better. So, there it was. I owed them each an apology.

The good news is that when I was very young my parents taught me how to apologize and seek forgiveness whenever I wronged someone else. The bad news is that I’ve had way too much practice doing that over the years. In all seriousness, though, I’ve learned that most people will accept an apology if they can see and understand that I’m truly sorry. Many are almost caught off-guard when asked to forgive me. There’s a look that they give me that’s a mix of wonder, shock and gratitude. Unfortunately, as a parent I make mistakes. However, each time that I do I try to use it as an opportunity to grow as a parent and to model for my children how to apologize. This time was no different. I went to each child and explained how I had messed up and how I would handle the conflict in the future if it were to arise. Then I apologized and asked forgiveness. It’s especially hard for me to do that when I can see the hurt that I’ve caused in the eyes of my child. Thankfully, each of them forgave me and we’re moving on from it.

I guess that’s the other part of the “forgiveness” lesson I’ve learned over the years. While seeking forgiveness is important, being willing to grant forgiveness is truly the key. I could go on and on about the importance of forgiveness but I’ll try to leave it with this: Forgiving the mistakes of others is the key to happy and healthy relationships. Life is too precious to live in the land of UN-forgiveness.

PS-That’s supposed to be a “bad” or “scary” face. Don’t laugh. It’s the best I could come up with. It’s not like I was planning on blogging about a parenting fail. 🙂