Fathers, don’t frustrate your children…
It was late at night and I was standing in my kitchen, cooking bacon and crying.
I was cooking bacon because I was hungry and I had bacon. When those two conditions are true it’s not at all surprising to find me in the kitchen cooking. The crying, however, was new. It had taken me by surprise.
It had been a stressful and snarly night. I had come home from work tired and cranky. Shortly after I’d arrived Amanda came back from the pool with the boys. Sagan, the baby, was fussy and tired. Max was excitedly telling me all the things he had seen and thought of that day. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a seven year old you know that they can be a little hard to follow. I tried to imitate interest with frequent nods and encouraging interjections.
As everyone settled down, Amanda took Sagan off to sleep, I started to prepare dinner and Max turned on the Wii. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I was wrapping up my cooking and called Max in to clear the table and set it for dinner. We’ve recently introduced a chore chart and those tasks are the centerpiece of his evening routine.
He had only just started to play his game. He didn’t want to get up and go do his chores right as he was getting into it.
I banned him from video games for a month.
He ran to his room and cried under his covers.
I set the table in silence.
We got through a quiet and grumpy dinner. He was sullen and didn’t talk much. I didn’t have much to say. The rest of the evening plodded on like that. He went to bed and the whole house got very quiet.
That’s when I got hungry. I hadn’t eaten much at dinner. My appetite had been soured by the conflict. I went into the kitchen and frowned at the leftovers from dinner. I looked in the fridge. I found a couple slices of bacon and some lettuce. It looked like the start of a good salad.
As I got a plate down from the shelf, I thought back to the incident earlier. I thought about what it looked like from his perspective. It’s been a long time since I was a seven year old, but I can remember a bit of what it felt like.
I remembered that when you’re seven you don’t get pick what happens next. You can ask but you know that you’re not in charge so often you’ll take what you can get. Sometimes that means you’ll get to go to the park, other times it means you get dragged to the supermarket.
When you’re seven you get excited about all the new things you’re learning. You can’t wait to tell your parents about it, but grown ups don’t listen much when you talk because those things aren’t new to them. You’re just learning how to hold a conversation but adults keep interrupting you with corrections of your facts or grammar.
The grown ups always seem to be too busy to play. They’ll admonish you for wasting your time on cartoons and video games. But they won’t object too much if it keeps you quiet while they’re distracted with facebook and twitter.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the grown ups don’t remember what it’s like to be seven. They don’t understand how something like a video game or a cheap toy can be so important to you. They don’t remember how long a day, a week or a month is to you. They’ll dish out devastating and arbitrary punishments in anger and there’s nothing you can do about it.
When you’re living with so little control of your own life, it’s essential that your parents provide a consistent structure of rules, expectations and consequences. The rules shouldn’t change just because your dad had a bad day.
I thought about that and I cried. I had come home worn out and disengaged. I hadn’t listened to him or played with him. Lego Indiana Jones had at least played with him that day. And now I was taking that away just because he wasn’t setting the table with enough enthusiasm.
I turned the heat down on the stove and went into his room. He was asleep in the tangled up manner of skinny boys. I knelt down close and whispered “I’m sorry.”
He half woke up and mumbled something. I told him again I was sorry and that I was unfair to take away his games like that. I told him I loved him and wanted to be a good dad. He closed his eyes and rolled over. I wasn’t sure he’d heard me.
The next morning on the way to school I repeated my apology. He said he had heard me the night before. I told him he still had to do his chores and he wouldn’t be getting his allowance for yesterday. He said ok. I looked at him through the rear view mirror.