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Waiting in Traffic to Punish My Kid

I will love her AND be mad at her. I will know that this may not be the right thing to do, but it is the best way I know how to do it at that moment.
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There is construction on the road I take home from my office at 5 o'clock. I keep forgetting that there is construction on the road that I take home from my office at 5 o'clock. Once you are on the road that has construction, getting off it will only delay you more. I mention this because, during the winter, my kids go to bed at 7:30. That means, if my commute takes an extra 25 minutes on the way home, because I forgot that there is construction on the road I take home from work at 5 o'clock, then I have about 45 minutes with my kids before it is time to start their bedtime routine. Yesterday, as I sat with the other poor saps who forgot about the construction, I decided to call Stevie and have her put our daughter on the phone. At least then I could have a little more time, even if it was as a disembodied voice on the other side of her Angry Birds machine. When Stevie picked up the phone I heard this:

"She's in trouble. You're going to have to take away her clock."

I'll explain the clock. My daughter has a bedtime routine with a sticker board. Every night for the past few months, when she is good and doesn't wake up our infant son, she gets to put a sticker on her board. When she fills a section of the board with stickers, she gets to pick out a toy at the store. Well, she didn't want a toy. She wanted a clock. She's been kind of obsessed with time lately. She's always asking us what time it is. So when she picked out a cool little digital clock for her reward, I was not surprised at all. It quickly became her prized possession. We'd be playing in the living room, and she'd stop me and say, "Daddy, can I go look at my clock?" Then she'd run to her room and run back out to tell us all what time it was.

Well, another thing that has been happening lately is that my daughter has been getting in scuffles at daycare. I'm sure there are multiple factors behind this, including: a little and newly mobile brother getting in her stuff all the time, a sleep schedule that is not as consistent as we would like it to be -- and the fact that she is just tough and doesn't take crap from anyone. But hitting is bad, and we've told her this. Nothing worked until I finally told her that if the daycare told me she hit again I would take away her clock. We told her teacher about the threat, and it has been part of the messaging at daycare ever since. That put a stop to the hitting -- until yesterday. So... back to me in traffic. Sigh...

"Tell her I am mad at her for hitting. Explain I am coming home to have a talk with her, and that I will be taking away her clock."

"OK. I'm sorry, honey."

"Don't be sorry. It was my threat. It's my job to follow through. I'm going to be a while."

"Did you forget about the construction on 7th again?"


Well shit. I can see the tears spilling out of her abnormally large eyes as her mom sends her to her room. I can hear the tiny little air gasps that are far worse than the tantrum that will precede them. I can predict the loss of breath as the air is sucked from the room while I unplug her clock, her favorite clock, the clock she takes pride in, the clock that makes her happy. I slam my fists on the steering wheel and accidentally honk my horn. The guy in front of me looks back and lifts his hands in the air as if to say, "You should have known this construction was here. It is always here." I wave back. "I know. I know."

I remember being a kid, waiting in my room for my dad to come home and punish me a few times. Strangely, I don't remember any of the reasons. I just remember the dread. I remember formulating my story. What would I say? How would I explain what happened in a way that would assuage his anger? How could I make things right?

Now I am on the other side of it, and nothing much has changed. All I can think is, What am I going to say? How will I explain what is happening? Do I pretend to be angry, or do I let her see how sad I am? How can I make things right? The car in front of me moves six feet. I follow suit.

This has been one of my biggest challenges as a parent. Hell, this has been one of my biggest challenges as a person. I have this horrible obsession with fixing things, and with being right. When it comes to math, when it comes to facts, when it comes to the Green Bay Packers being the greatest football team in the history of the world, being right is easy. When it comes to being a parent, almost everything lives in this grey area of "maybe."

Should we let my daughter try out the big slide on the playground by herself? Maybe. Give it a shot and see what happens. Oh look, she fell on her face. Is that bad? Maybe. Should we give Captain peanut butter? Maybe. Give it a shot and see what happens. Oh look, no hives. Does that mean he's not allergic? Maybe. Should we spank our kids? Probably not. Oh look, they still don't listen to us. Is that because we don't spank them? Maybe. What if I take away her most prized possession in the world? Will that work better? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. The problem with traffic is it gives you too much time to think.

I decide to call the daycare to get more of the story. Turns out she didn't just hit one kid. She hit three kids. Well, it was a combination of hitting and pushing.

"Did they hit back? Or did she just clear the room Jackie Chan style?" My joke doesn't get a laugh. She will have to check with the teacher. Now all I can picture is my tiny girl bicycle kicking some kid in the face while using various pieces of adorably sized furniture to fling kids around the room like rag dolls.


Or something like this... without the pads.

What am I going to do? What if she gets kicked out of daycare? Maybe I should put her in karate. Maybe she is destined to fight crime. Would that help? Maybe. You can go to hell maybe. You can go straight to hell. I look at the time on my dashboard and all I can think about is her little clock. It changes colors every few minutes from red to green to blue to yellow. It transitions gradually and becomes each intermediary color in between. When she watches it with her eyes wide, her face is a smiling rainbow. Shit. Shit. Shit. I hit the steering wheel again. Honk again. Wave sorry again. This guy must think I am crazy.

This is driving me crazy. Not this specific situation. The ifs. The ifs are driving me crazy. The ifs are my life now. Is this how it was for my parents? Were they just as clueless about how to do this as I am? I don't know how to make a good person. Hell, I'm 32 and I just barely learned how to make a proper over easy egg. What if taking her clock away breaks her? What if I just sit her down and explain how society works. Violence is not an acceptable reaction in our society, except in movies, and on television, and even in the Disney movie you just fell in love with. Yes. Frozen. The geniuses at Disney spent an entire beautiful movie flipping the fairy tale princess story on its head, defying gender roles, making true love an act that is given instead of received, telling the story of two women trying to connect with, and love, each other, and then in the last three minutes of the movie have the main protagonist needlessly punch a guy directly in the face. Then everyone laughs, including my daughter. Thanks, Disney, for making violence against men a joke. Would you mind calling our daycare?

Of course it isn't Disney's fault. It's probably no one's fault. It is probably an amalgam of circumstances, both in and out of our control, that have led to my daughter becoming an unstoppable ninja. And yet, it falls to my wife and me to fix it. AS SOON AS I GET OUT OF THIS TRAFFIC! JESUS, IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG UP THERE? I poke my head out of the car. Nope. Just construction.

Here's what I decide. No yelling. I will remain calm but stern. I will walk into her room and discuss what happened. I will be persistent and make her tell me why she is in trouble. I will make her tell me what her punishment is. I will take away her clock. I will understand that she will react to this poorly, and I will allow myself to accept her reaction as who she is in that moment. I will love her AND be mad at her. I will know that this may not be the right thing to do, but it is the best way I know how to do it at that moment. I can't always be right anymore. I'm a parent now. If I worry about being right all the time, I will be perpetually stuck in traffic forever, over-analyzing every decision I need to make, and never making any. I don't need to always be right; I need to strive to be less wrong.

I take a deep breath and let that be it. I feel the tightness in my jaw and my shoulders slowly let go. Tonight is going to be rough. My 45-60 minutes with my kids before bedtime are going to be tearful and loud and I can't fix that. But I can do my best, and that is going to have to be enough.

The car in front of me starts to move slowly, then a little quicker. It's my turn. One more deep breath to calm down. The guy behind me honks. I wave. I know. I know. The gas pedal descends and I head home to do my best -- to be less wrong.

Thanks for sitting in traffic with me,

Dad (John)

P.S. I decided to elaborate more about my thoughts on the punch at the end of Frozen. You can read about it here.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on John Kinnear's personal blog, Ask Your Dad. You can also find his blog on Facebook.

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