Friday, June 7, 2013

A well-placed yell

Psalm 20:1 (NIV)

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
   may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
There’s an article making its round on the Web the past week or so about why we shouldn’t yell at our kids so much. That’s a gross oversimplification, which I offer because I don’t really want to summarize what someone else wrote, and I only skimmed the original anyway. I read enough to feel a visceral reaction to what the author described: seeing a child flinch in fear because the parent was yelling again. I’ll admit I’ve seen that face before because I’ve caused it to happen. I was horrified then and not proud now, and I’m trying to make sure it never happens again.

That said… there are times when raising a voice to the extreme becomes useful, defensible and downright necessary, and one such moment came my way tonight. It was practically over before it started and in retrospect fairly insignificant. But in light of the yelling commentary and the Psalm verse, I feel compelled to recount anyway.

For some reason I thought it would be a good idea tonight to take Max and Charlie to three different grocery stores. While they were very well behaved on balance, sometimes Max’s youthful exuberance gets the best of him. On our way into Target, he climbed into a median planter that bordered the traffic lanes separating the store from the parking lot. He was hopping over plants and, as I saw it, paying more attention to his feet than the road before him.

So when the three of us approached the crosswalk at roughly the same time as a vehicle, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t paying attention, I reflexively yelled his name. He froze in his tracks, as did the car and probably some other pedestrians in the vicinity. The driver waved us across and I waved in gratitude. We entered the store safely and proceeded to spend too much money on food.

One of Max’s latest tics is to instantly come up with a plausible excuse for any behavior a parent might call into question. My best comparison is Adam Sandler as the title character in “Happy Gilmore,” confronted about yet another indiscretion on the pro golf tour:
Virginia: What’s this I hear about you breaking a rake and throwing it in the woods?
Happy Gilmore: What? I didn’t break it, I was just testing its durability, and then I placed it in the woods because it’s made of wood and I just thought he should be with his family.
This is how a lot of our discussions have been going. I can’t tell what’s worse, that he might believe what he’s saying is plausible or that he thinks I’ll be dumb enough to buy it. It’s an offshoot of Jack’s habit to refuse to accept blame for anything ever, but Max does have a different creative spin. I forget what excuse he used tonight, but I know he vowed he saw the car approaching and was stopping, so I didn’t really need to yell.

At least Max is better dressed than Mr. Gilmore.
That’s when I dropped what I think is one of my better responses square on his back. I explained I thought he might get hurt by that car, and nothing scares me more than the thought of him being hurt. That’s why I yelled. Because I couldn’t bear the thought of something bad happening to him. And to his credit, he accepted my logic. Usually he’d offer a rebuttal, but instead we just headed off to buy some oatmeal and applesauce.

Of course there’s a key element underpinning my point. The reason Max stopped the second I yelled is because I don’t take that tone with him every day. It actually wasn’t particularly harsh — I can tell the difference in my voice between anger and concern — but the truth is the more I (or any parent) yell, the more likely he tunes it all out. But when used as sparingly as possible, “The Voice” remains a useful tool.

The key is to treat it like a fire extinguisher — to be broken open and used only in case of emergency. I’d love to sit here and profess to being just that prudent, but there’s no way that’s true. I do think I’m working on the problem and trying my best to use my strongest attention-getting techniques only when physical danger is at hand. But sure, there are times I go after the fly with a sledgehammer. I don’t like myself very much when it happens, which I suppose is slightly better than carrying on as such without a second thought. But it’s nowhere near as good as the ideal.

In the heat of the moment, I rarely (if ever) have time to stop and think, “Wait, is now a good time to break the decibel meter?” That means the groundwork has to be established in the quiet moments when I’m reflective and working hard at being a better dad. I’m trying. Not always succeeding, but hopefully always trying.

A prayer for June 7:

Lord, I don’t always know how you answer me when I am in distress, because the truth is I’m not as good as I’d like to be at listening for however you may be trying to speak to me. But still I ask for your protection for me, for my wife and especially for my children. My family is so important to me, God, I would do whatever I can to keep them safe and healthy, to keep us all together. Their love and our life together is a blessing beyond comprehension. Thank you for allowing us to walk these roads together. Amen.

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