“I did it!” Grace exclaimed, rushing in the front door. “I did it! Come outside and see!” I went out and stood on the sidewalk to see my daughter pedaling away down the sidewalk, on two wheels. Finally. We had taken the training wheels off a few days before, but she just couldn’t hold herself up. Even when I raced behind steadying her, my hand in an iron grip on the back of her seat, she would teeter and fall off to one side. She was close to tears because she wanted it so badly. She wanted to glide away in a balanced stride, independent, confident, more grown up. And like everything she tries and doesn’t get immediately, swimming, piano, lacrosse, she’ll get really down on herself and then within a few days something will click and it will be as if she never couldn’t do it. This was no different. There she was speeding away from me, faster and faster, her body in a racer’s hunch, her exhilaration palpable. She had found her new obsession, her new love, racing back and forth down the sidewalk of our block. Nothing could get her off her pink and purple Disney Princess coaster—except me. Within the hour, I took it all away.
We had established a rule that Grace could ride in the street if an adult was supervising, which she fully understood. Moreover, she could walk her bike across the street and ride the other sidewalk, if the feeling of wanderlust was too overwhelming. Yet, when I went out to check on her progress, there she was with a few other of the neighborhood kids, riding up the middle of the street as if she was its new owner, obviously mad with independence…not an adult in sight.
I walked to the middle of the street, and when she caught a glimpse of me, my eyes locked into her face, I extended out my arm and upturned hand, pointing my index finger toward her, curling it in and out as fast as I could, which translates exactly to, Young lady, if you don’t come here as quickly as humanly possible you will be sorrier than you could ever imagine.
“Tell me which adult is out here watching you!” I demanded as she halted before me.
“Oh, that’s right.” She avoided my eyes and slumped her shoulders.
“Honey, you can’t see what we can see! You could’ve been killed!” And then I had to make an on-the-spot decision that I wish I didn’t. “Off the bike.” We walked inside, and after a brief deliberation with my wife, I informed Grace that her bike was off limits for the next 24 hours. I told her, “I need you to see how important listening to me is, so I have to do this.” She pulled her chin into her shoulder, shook her head, and wiped her eyes.
In Samuel Butler’s 17th century poem Hudibras, Butler originates the popular misquoting of a passage in Proverbs. Butler writes, “Spare the rod and spoil the child." However, Butler is using the line as double entendre giving advice for birth control. The actual passage from Proverbs 13:24 reads, “He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes." Without argument, this proverb is offering child rearing advice. Unfortunately, too often the focus is on the “rod,” borrowed too often by those who want some sort of validation for spanking or some other sort of corporal punishment. Yet, what the real focus should be is the ending message: “[H]e that loveth him correcteth him…” In more modern terms, a parent who loves his child will correct him. To let a child run wild and not correct him, nor even discipline him, shows no love for the child. It would be ignoring the child, showing no care for the child’s actions. Moreover, to correct him is to be done out of love, as it is to show love. That image is less like a parent spanking a child in some sort of lashing rage, but more like the thoughtful decision to discipline a child in hopes of protecting a child, even beyond what a child refuses to see. It is this brand of deliberation that my father employed when correcting me. In fact, it was far more effective than any spanking.
One of the rules I was supposed to follow when was playing outside, was that I was supposed to be home before dark. But like most kids, I found it too difficult to tear myself away from what I was doing, hide-and-seek, kickball, whatever. And so I would stretch my time and play ignorant when I was late, claiming it wasn’t really dark, my finger tip pointing to somewhere out on the horizon where inches of light still held on. So then my dad changed my curfew to an exact time, eight o’clock. However, I still saw curfews as a more of a guideline. If my father said to be back home by eight o’clock, I heard it more as eight o’clock-ish. I would stretch that ish and then explain that it was eight when I stopped and headed home. My father had finally had enough. Which was actually surprising because he wasn’t a three-strikes kinda guy when it came to following his directions. But, I guess he wanted to see me be responsible enough on my own. I wasn’t. Not yet.
“When I give a direction, I expect it to be obeyed,” he would demand, his index finger held up, signaling that what he said was the one and only thing I needed to know.
“Nothing happened,” I would argue.
“Something could,” he rebutted, “but it’s not important that you understand that. What’s important is that you listen to me, because I understand that. Tomorrow I’ll tell you your punishment. We’ll find something that’ll make you listen.”
My father wasn’t really a spanker, but at times like that, I rather wished he was. It would have been quick and out of the way and forgettable. But to wait to tell me the next morning, that took real thought—translation this one’s gonna hurt more than any spanking. And it did.
It’s not an understatement to say that as a kid I was a T.V. junkie. I loved watching television. I felt it to be on par with chocolate. I wasn’t allowed a T.V. in my own room, for my dad knew they’d never see me. I don’t think there was an hour in a day I couldn’t find something I liked watching, because there was so much to like, from Shazaam and The Gong Show and Fantasy island to Ultra Man and That’s Incredible and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Pure genius. I was hooked. And obviously, my father knew it.
My dad didn’t really believe in physical restrictions because he didn’t want to take away childhood exercise as a punishment, so I could still go out and play and ride my bike. But what he did do was far worse than the lash of any rod. The next morning, my father informed me that for an entire week, while I was allowed to watch T.V., I was not allowed to choose any program to watch. I couldn’t even sway the opinion of anybody else watching. And if no one wanted to watch T.V., then the T.V. was off. If I broke this rule, he would just keep adding days. This man was smarter than I could have possibly given him credit for.
Well over 30 years after the fact, I still remember that week as one of the longest weeks on record. And what I did discover was that my family, namely my sister, had the absolute worst taste in T.V. viewing. It was unbearable. I once read that if the Earth suddenly stopped spinning, everything not anchored down would be swept up into the atmosphere; yet there I sat, stone still, too desperate from withdrawl to move, trying to figure out Love American Style and why Mary Hartman was named the same name twice. Some mercy was shown when my folks watched Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days; and one night, probably not able to bear my agony any longer, my sister swore that she wanted to watch The Six Million Dollar Man. And thank God she did; because without that dose of quality action TV, like some weekly visit to the methadone clinic, I don’t think that I would have made it. Yeah, my dad knew my Achilles heel, my kryptonite. That man meant business. At the end of the week when my exile was up, I could see he, too, was relieved. Newly paroled, I settled in for a night of the Bionic Man and the Bionic Woman, letting them flow over me like cool waters.
After the first day, I could have been hit by a bus, but I was home each night by 7:55, and I didn’t need a watch.
What I only saw was the immediate. He wanted the respect. He was my father and I should obey him because of it. That was the full scope of my perspective. But he was willing to risk that because his scope was far broader. He could see the potential dangers much farther down the road than I could imagine. And as a father, his job, as he knew it, was first and foremost to keep me safe. I didn’t have to like it. I didn’t even have to understand it. But what I never question is that however he corrected me it was first done out of love. The love that I hope my daughter can feel from me, even as she’s pedaling away from me, farther and farther down the road.