Becoming a father is a lot like joining a 12-step group. The first step is to accept that you are powerless over your children and that you must put your fate into the hands of a higher power (and by higher power I mean of course their mom).
Despite clear advantages in size, strength, intellect, and moral tenacity (all of which have evaporated over time as my children have grown), there isn’t really all that much you can do to control your kids’ behavior, ultimately. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t make being a parent any easier.
I first began to realize this when my son Cole was roughly 18 months old. For reasons that have become obscure over time, I was left alone with him on a Saturday morning while my wife went off to get her hair done or possibly have an affair. Maybe she simply parked the car around the block, climbed into the back seat, and grabbed a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. In those days, sleep was like opium, chocolate, and sex rolled into one – hypnotic and fleeting, the most glorious thing one could imagine.
I opened the fridge, saw we were out of milk (or possibly beer), and decided to embark on a father and son outing to the grocery store. At that time he was probably parked in his favorite chair watching Toy Story for the 173rd time. I picked him up, carried him outside, and attempted to put him in his car seat. He would have none of it. Whatever his agenda was that day, a trip to Safeway was not part of it.
Cole made his objections known loudly and vociferously. I thought: I’m the adult here. I’m bigger, stronger, and presumably smarter than this 30-pound bundle of muscle and attitude. If I say we’re going to the store, we’re going to the store, dammit.
But it was like trying to stuff a wolverine into a shoe box. Somewhere between the living room and the garage the kid had grown an extra leg and three more arms. I’d slip a foot through the harness of the car seat and he’d yank back his arm; I’d manage to secure one arm and his feet would come unmoored. And the noise, well. Gangland slayings have transpired at a lower decibel level.
I should note that by this point the willfulness of my son was already legendary. Maggie, our first OBGYN, noted it when he was still in the womb and refused to come out well after his 40 weeks were up. He was warm, well fed, and perfectly happy to stay there as long as his mom would have him. The kid was 10 and a half pounds when Maggie finally escorted him from the premises via C-section, bawling his head off. If he’d had teeth he might have bitten her.
Cole has been this way ever since. Every doctor, every teacher, and virtually every adult who has ever met my son has noted his remarkable intransigence. It has helped make schooling him a challenge, to say the least.
So as my son was bucking and twisting, acting like I was trying to waterboard him when all I wanted to do was go to the goddamn store, I remember thinking about Mao’s dictum that power comes at the end of a gun muzzle; that, in the end, the authority of the state derives from its ability to do you harm. I realized that the only way to get him into that seat was to get truly physical, and a stupid trip to Safeway just wasn’t worth it.
So we went without milk, or beer, or whatever it was. He returned to communing with Buzz and Woody, and I went back to doing whatever it was I was doing, albeit in somewhat grumpier fashion.
My son is now 16. More than a few times over the years I have wondered whether a few well timed, well intentioned beatings might have made him a little more pliable and our lives a little easier.
But I never wanted to be that kind of father. And knowing my son I don’t think it would have done much good. That stubbornnesss is hard wired; I don’t think anything could have beat it out of him. All it would have done is drive a wedge between us.
My daughter Ava, three years Cole’s junior, is a different case altogether. She has her moments for sure, but she lacks my son’s singular stubbornness. She has a much greater talent for taking the long view and manipulating the situation to her own advantage. If it were her I was trying to squeeze into that car seat, she’d have managed to get a cookie out of the deal.
Ultimately I decided the only way to impose your will on your kids is to raise spineless children or do it at the end of a gun, metaphorically speaking. And why would you want to?
I want my kids to develop their own world views. I want them to respect the power of authority but not to blindly follow it. I want them to make their own decisions, good, bad, or ugly. Ultimately that’s what’s going to happen, regardless of what I do. As a parent all I can do is try to steer them in a good direction. I can’t guarantee they will arrive at the destination I would have chosen.
I believe my son’s stubbornness will serve him well over time. I hope it will ultimately allow him to find his own north star and follow it, regardless of the obstacles or the criticism of others. I know for certain it will make him a more interesting adult. Provided, of course, we can ever persuade him to leave the house.
Actual wolverine courtesy of National Geo. No animals or children were harmed in the making of this blog post.