I’m raising a smart aleck, and I’m not happy about it. My 11-year-old son offers flippant responses to important questions and has knee-jerk reactions to benign requests. Despite attempts to curb the sass, he’s becoming a first-class smarty-pants.
I’d like to blame his recalcitrance on the Internet, video games, young adult novels, iPhones, the school system and his entire generation. But the truth is that he comes by it naturally. As one saying goes, “he knows how to push my buttons because I installed them.”
My father tried to prevent the smart-mouthed gene from expressing in me through a combination of his formidable will and the controversial book, “Dare to Discipline,” by James Dobson. Catching a glimpse of Dobson’s 1977 parenting manual used to make me shudder because I knew the principles contained therein were being employed to keep me in my place.
Dr. Dobson’s essential argument is that when a “strong-willed child is allowed by indulgence to develop ‘habits’ of defiance and disrespect during his early childhood, those characteristics will haunt him and his parents for the next twenty years.”
My father decided there would be none of this haunting in our house. As a result, I grew up afraid of him.
Once, when I was about my son’s age, I accidentally knocked over a saltshaker during dinner, and it broke in half. I felt bad, and apologized. My father told me he’d try to fix it. That evening, he went to work in the garage with superglue and a vice grip. The repaired shaker, originally worth no more than $3, was back on the table by the next night’s supper. I couldn’t understand why he’d even bothered with the damn thing.
“Great job, dad,” I said in earnest. “Looks even better than it did before.”
Roaring like a lion, my father accused me of mocking his work, of being an ingrate, of being a disrespectful child. My punishment was to figure out a way to repay him for his time and effort – which he calculated as $400 based on his $200-per-hour income as a neurologist.
Not only did I have to scheme ways to earn that money based on my meager allowance and the pursuit of extra chores, I had to see the work through and provide him with the cash repentance.
I washed dishes, dogs, boats and cars for weeks to pay him back. I became sullen at dinner – scared of my father’s tongue as well as my words. I believe the cost of the saltshaker incident was higher than he ever intended. He wanted to teach me respect, but I learned firsthand how to chastise and belittle as a consequence. I never had the chance to offer a mea culpa throughout the ordeal, nor was I the recipient of any comfort during my sequestration. My mother was under strict orders to let me be.
Forty years later, I find myself monitoring my son for any sign of impertinence. I’m quick to snap if he does.
“I don’t like these beans,” he said recently at dinner. “They taste like rubber bands.”
“You’re lucky you even have food! Remember those children we saw in Cambodia with nothing to eat? Why do I even take you places? We cooked those beans for you with money we earned. Sit up straight, your posture suggests apathy.”
And so it goes. Nature. Nurture. Rinse. Repeat. Attempts at dinnertime subordination get handed down and beget future insubordination. I heard that my grandfather was no joy at supper either, preferring silence to idle banter. He was also known to beat his four sons first thing in the morning to prevent any bad behavior later in the day. I was six when grandpa died of Alzheimer’s disease, and all I remembered from his funeral was that none of his grown boys cried.
After my father’s verbal assault on my innocent remark – one of many examples of his daring discipline (none of which included spanking, thankfully) – I successfully managed to repress even the faintest hint of sassiness in front of him. During my teenage years, however, sarcasm aimed at others became a refuge. I taught myself to hide the pain behind put-down humor.
So what’s my son learning when words fly off my tongue in reaction to words that flew off his? I’m pretty sure it isn’t unconditional love, which is what I feel for him. Nor is it the power of vulnerability, which turned out to be the final lesson of my father’s life.
As he descended into Alzheimer’s disease, all the sweetness, and sensitivity behind my dad’s tough exterior came into play. We held hands a lot, connecting beyond language. Whatever words he could utter were a gift, even if they came out wrong. I felt deep compassion for the suffering my dad endured at the hands of his father, and at the awful dementia that befell them both.
In the end, my deepest respect for my father was born from his greatest moments of weakness. Perhaps this is what I should be passing along to David at dinner, instead of the salt.